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.