Religion and Migration in the Context of Sri Lankan Middle Class and Capitalism

The vast majority of the Sinhala immigrants, both Christians and Buddhists, have lived in the urban middle-class background in Sri Lanka where capitalistic values found a fertile ground. This was true of the sample of twelve people chosen for structured interviews. Eight of them were from this background and the other two belong to the second generation of these immigrants. Here the observation of Max Weber highlighting the connection between protestant ethics and the rise of capitalism is useful in studying the migration of these people. Commenting on Weber’s observations Ann Levine has noted,

Whereas Marx saw religion as an obstacle to social change, Weber saw it as an agent of social change. Weber began with a puzzle: Why were the leading capitalists of the day overwhelmingly Protestant? Why not Catholic (or Buddhist or Muslim)? He found an answer in the Calvinistic phase of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin believed that the individual’s fate in the hereafter was preordained but did not advocate passive acceptance of whatever life brought. Rather he preached the redemptive value of work. The Protestant work ethic, with its peculiar combination of hard work and deferred gratification, was ideally suited to capitalism. Under Calvinism, investing in profit-making ventures became a moral duty. In this case, then, religion played a major, active role in social change. The one point on which all these theorists would agree is that the structure of religion and that of society are intertwined.

It was clear that the influence of protestant ethics was not confined only to Christians but also affected Buddhists, particularly those living in the urban areas of Sri Lanka. Among these immigrants to the UK, some had been living in urban areas in Sri Lanka for generations while others had migrated to urban areas in the recent past. Through participant observation, the researcher was able to determine that these immigrants not only lived in the urban areas of Sri Lanka but were also nurtured in a middle-class background with capitalistic values. They were not from the poverty-stricken section of the urban areas in Sri Lanka such as slums and shanties.

In this context, it became necessary to investigate the relationship between migration and the religion of people in urban areas with capitalistic values in order to verify the influence of religion on the process of migration. It was clear that most of these immigrants had been practising their faith with capitalistic values, protestant ethics and the rise of capitalism. This is evident in their philosophy of life. For instance, they consider material prosperity as a blessing and they invest part of their income for profit and future use. Whether they were Buddhists or Christians the religious philosophy of these people has been associated with capitalistic values influenced by protestant ethics.

The Buddhists in the urban areas of Sri Lanka who created "Protestant Buddhism" in the 19th century are from middle-class backgrounds with protestant ethics and capitalistic values and were more exposed to Western realities than others in traditional rural areas of Sri Lanka. Through this research, it became evident that the majority of the Buddhists in and around London are from this group and were influenced by both protestant Christianity and protestant Buddhism, and that this greatly facilitated their migration to the UK.

After the political independence of Sri Lanka from Britain in 1948 most of those who remained Christians in urban middle-class areas with capitalistic values were more concerned about their power and prestige in the society. Christianity and the Western way of life which had secured their status before independence were essential for them. It was hard to think of Christianity without a Western way of life. According to their way of thinking the British way of life was the best. When this way of life gradually changed in Sri Lanka they began to make an effort to keep it alive at least within the Christian Church. It could be said that when this group accepted Christianity in a Western form the form became more important than the content. The incarnation model of the Christian gospel was alien to this group. Therefore even after independence, they were attached to the Western way of life without a proper understanding of the changing realities around them. As this group had powerful positions in Christian churches the official position of the church was greatly influenced by them. In this regard, Kenneth Fernando (later the Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka) has observed,

So, by and large, the Church remained a group hankering after the fleshpots of the past colonial era, the language and culture of the colonial masters which gave them what they considered to be a social distinction and they espoused the cause of the privileged and the rich.

It is evident that this group was so attached to a Western way of life with capitalistic values it became an integral part of their life. This made this group of people a “reality in Sri Lanka” and not “of Sri Lanka”. They maintained their liking for the former colonial way of life and began to speak of the present in the language of the colonial era. Though British rule had ended they wanted to continue life in the same way and with an emotional attachment to their faith.

In this state, they could manage their lives without serious tension until 1956. The right-wing government of the United National Party did not propose any drastic changes from the former colonial government. In that government before 1956 generally, all Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers were from the Anglicised urban elite, ethnically from Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Eurasian (Burghers) communities, with Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Islamic religious associations. Later, when the newly formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party came into power in 1956 many Members of Parliament were from traditional Sri Lankan villages. They were not from the Westernised elite and did not speak English fluently. The power inherited by the westernise elite from Britain gradually began to diminish. This resulted in major changes in their lifestyle, creating an identity crisis for the Westernised elite. Those who found it difficult to identify with this new society came to the conclusion that it would be more comfortable to live in the UK than in Sri Lanka. In an interview with one member of this group (SC-2) of immigrants in the UK, the researcher noted some of the problems they had faced.

Although we spoke English as our first language and followed the Christian faith, we saw ourselves as Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka was our motherland. But when the majority of people in Sri Lanka began to discriminate against us because of our faith and language we felt compelled to migrate to a place where we would be accepted and comfortable. People were not ready to work hard like us. They wanted everything free of charge.

It was observed that most of this group were from the Karava caste whose ancestors became Christianised as communities and not as individuals. Commenting on the conversion of Karava people to Christianity M. D. Raghavan has observed,

The readiness to embrace Christianity arose from many causes. Being comparative newcomers, the Karava were less enmeshed in the intricacies of the Sinhalese social structure. Lesser involvement in the feudalism of the time gave them greater freedom of action.

As a result of their beliefs and way of life, this group had more freedom and found it easier to live with capitalistic values enriched by Christian protestant principles. This enabled them to create a Christian culture of their own with middle-class capitalistic values that brought them closer to their colonial masters.

It is clear that people whose caste association made them easier to become Christians in the colonial era with its capitalistic values found their Christianity a facilitating factor in emigrating to a new life in the UK, and recovering the self-esteem they had lost in Sri Lanka