Mountain at a Center of the World: Pilgrimage and Pluralism in Sri Lanka

Image of Mountain at a Center of the World: Pilgrimage and Pluralism in Sri Lanka
Release Date: 
February 27, 2024
Columbia University Press
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Adam’s Peak, high above a rain forest in Sri Lanka (the former Ceylon or Serendib), rises 7,559 feet from sea level. Climbers find a large boulder with a cavity said by Muslims and Christians to have been left by one of Adam’s feet after he left Paradise. Buddhists, however, claim that Buddha stepped here and left his mark. For Hindus, the imprint is Sri Padma—the Sacred Footprint of Shiva.

Can different religious faiths interact harmoniously around an agreed sacred object such as Adam’s Peak? If they view such a place as sacred, will this attitude inspire tolerance toward all faiths that revere it? Will it guide humans to respect and care for this component of the biosphere as a green holy place? Will their reverence for this object lead them to revere all life? At least in this case, the evidence in this book answers, No.

The lofty teachings of major faiths—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity—do not succeed at Adam’s Peak in elevating human consciousness and inspiring a sense of unity among humans and between them and the entire biosphere. Instead, they inspire division and jealousy: also, vulnerability to the greedy exploitation of entrepreneurs scheming to profit from the pilgrims. The debris cast aside by pilgrims makes the summit look like a stratified cliff face.

Author Alexander McKinley points out many exceptions to this rather bleak general picture and some reasons to hope for change. But this is the big picture he portrays after years of studying religious texts in many languages; living in Sri Lanka for extended periods, including a village at the foot of Adam’s Peak; and having climbed the mountain 50 times, interviewing pilgrims and employees along the way.

McKinley’s picture parallels my own impressions when I toured and lectured in Sri Lanka for three months in 1983. The island of Serendib, as sea-faring Muslim merchants called it long ago, was said in 1983 to be a model developing country with low incomes but high standards of education and health care.

A strong majority of Sri Lankans in 1983, as now, spoke Sinhala and called themselves Buddhist. A minority spoke Tamil and claimed to be Hindu. A smaller group was Muslim. Fewer still were Europeans and North Americans speaking English. Since “Ceylon” was a former British colony (like India to the north), many if not most Sri Lankans spoke English as well as their native language. British colonial leaders provided better schools to the Tamil minority and gave them better jobs—a source of communal tension that endures.

Some days I walked on the beach near Colombo with a 65-year-old Tamil who liked to recite poetry and prose by Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In spring 1983 fires broke out in Tamil areas of Colombo and my friend sent a note: “On the run. My house is burned down.” That was the last time I heard from him. A civil war erupted in July 1983 and continued until May 2009 when Sinhalese troops put an end to armed Tamil resistance. More than two decades later, little has been done to address Tamil complaints of structural and day-to-day discrimination.

Having mediated an end to Sri Lanka’s civil war, India now worries about China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean.

The civil war depleted Sri Lanka’s treasury and elicited complaints that the Sinhalese-run government had severely abused the human and political rights of Tamils. No longer seen as an ideal of any kind, the Sri Lankan government turned to China to build and finance a modern port at Hambantota—quickly making Sri Lanka a beggar to the whims of Beijing. Unable to pay its debts to Beijing, Colombo in 2015 gave the port and surrounding land China for 99 years.

Adam’s Peak is far inland, away from Hambantota and the business whirls of Colombo, McKinley quotes a saying attributed to Buddha:

As a mountain of rock is unwavering, well-settled,

so, a monk whose delusion is ended

doesn’t quiver—

just like a mountain.

This book will take you away from the tourist beaches of a beautiful tropical island to its equally beautiful interior and the great myths of several major religions. Some of McKinley’s stories—particularly his conversations with pilgrims from many countries—may lift your spirits. But his depictions of interfaith bickering, along the trail and at the peak, may remind you how multiple versions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—all “peoples of the Book” (Jimmy Carter’s term)—struggle over the holy places in what some critics see as the unholy city Jerusalem. Nor are McKinley’s reports on how ostensibly religious pilgrims abuse nature likely to boost your confidence is the benign power of faith.

McKinley’s research is impeccable and his language crystal clear, but his presentation is better suited for scholars than for a mildly interested casual reader.