May 31, 2022

Sri Lanka: Religio-cultural Mental Schemas & Human Flourishing with Professor Shehan Williams (video)

How resilience, meaning, and a sense of community are sustained by underlying belief systems, even in the midst of adversity.

By Templeton Staff with with Luana DeBorst

This recording is from a series of public seminars given by scholars lecturing at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford as part of the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) supported project, Education, Purpose and Human Flourishing in Uncertain Times (EPHF). EPHF explores new understandings of education, purpose, and human flourishing through annual convenes and publications.

In the above video, psychiatrist Shehan Williams discusses how the religious and cultural belief systems of Sri Lankans shape their capacity for flourishing, even during difficult times. He also shares an overview of the TWCF-funded online educational program, Project LEAPS.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic country that has been affected by a decades-long civil war and a major tsunami resulting in thousands of deaths and displacements, loss of social and family infrastructure, and adverse economic impacts. This discussion explores the role of Sri Lankan people’s underlying belief systems in the development of resilience, meaning, and flourishing in a setting where resources are scarce. The professor suggests that the importance of these belief systems, strongly determined by each individual's religio-cultural experience and background, should not be underestimated. 

Williams begins by exploring the significance of the Sri Lankan Festival of the Tooth (Esala Perahera), an event held annually in the city of Kandy, at which musicians, dancers, singers acrobats, and brightly decorated elephants parade the streets, in anticipation of the seasonal shift and coming rainfall. He suggests that the event—which brings together core Buddhist and Hindu traditions, and was observed even at the most difficult times (such as during the two World Wars, and during Covid-19)—would meet the concept of human flourishing for a whole community in the midst of and despite adversity. 

According to Williams, these festivities, rituals, and play are an enactment, a communal ritual that sustains family and friend relationships, and inculcates in the individual a sense of historical belonging and community. Such rituals, he suggests, bring about the unique mental schema of people who live in the South Asian world, which is full of rituals and religious enactments. 

Conversely, Williams goes on to indicate that within the Sri Lankan post-conflict context, clashes and ongoing tensions among faiths have caused some to argue that religion has done more harm to society than good. As such, he suggests that in post-conflict Sri Lanka, the four major religions involved in the debate need to be brought together and reconciled. In line with this view, he proceeds to explain Project LEAPS, an online educational program designed to develop character strengths among school-children and integrate aspects of various religions and spirituality. Rather than emphasizing differences among religious beliefs, the curriculum, delivered through an online interactive gaming model, integrates and highlights common threads within the different religious veins. 

Williams concludes by demonstrating that psychological therapies applied in this context need to understand these religio-cultural mental schemas in order to help individuals recover from mental distress amidst numerous uncertainties and traumas.

Professor Shehan Williams, TWCF grantee, is a Sri Lankan and British trained Consultant Psychiatrist and a Professor in Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka. He was elected the President of the Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists from 2018-2020. He has won Presidential awards for research in Sri Lanka and currently is the co-Principal Investigator on a USD 233,000 grant awarded to University of Toronto and University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, from Templeton World Charity Foundation on building character strengths and virtues in post-conflict Sri Lanka. He currently Chairs the Board of Study responsible for training psychiatrists in Sri Lanka. He is on the Board of the Global Initiative in Psychiatry (fGIP) and the Secretary General of the South Asian Psychiatric Federation. He is also the President of the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation.

Dr. David Johnson, Junior Proctor, University of Oxford, Reader in Comparative and International Education, and Fiona Gatty, DPhil., Research Project Coordinator and TWCF Fellow in Comparative Education, are Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator of the EPHF ProjectLuana DeBorst, Research Assistant, University of Oxford, assists with the project.