By Ravi Perera –
Undoubtedly the story of Siddhartha is a pivotal point in history. Even through the fog of time the sixth century B.C. stands out as a period of unusual social and intellectual activity. In these early days of Rome, the idea of republicanism was slowly but firmly establishing itself in the minds of men while in nearby Greece men such as Pythagoras and Heraklitus were laying the foundations of Western Philosophy which were to eventually have such a defining impact on our social/political evolution. In the Far East, in China, we observe the emergence of philosophers such as Confucius and Lao Tzu whose ideas fundamentally impacted the evolution of that huge civilization. But the person whose philosophy was to directly influence a much larger segment of humanity was born in India.
The story of Siddhartha, now showing at cinemas here, is an attempt at recreating the story of Gautama the Buddha, the founder of a religion that has thrived more than two millennia and still remains intellectually attractive, obvious human advancement since those distant days notwithstanding. In the process of telling the tale as tradition has it, the producers take us across two thousand five hundred years to an era portrayed as a picture of pastoral prosperity with heavy undertones of religiosity. Although there is a sense of ambivalence in the attitude of Suddhodana the father of Siddhartha, a quest for spiritual attainment was not out of place. In fact spiritual endeavours, as understood then, were much revered.
In comparison, we live in distressing times indeed. If we need a representation of the unhappy quality of our existence the murder of a Buddhist Monk in the suburban town of Moratuwa is a good as any snap-shot of the era. Such acts of murder may not be an everyday occurrence. But the events that led to, surrounded it, and followed the murder are not unusual nor are the obvious confusions and contradictions that abound in this saga, uncommon.
That a Buddhist monk could be murdered in a dispute concerning temple property alone seems a contradiction of the non-materialistic philosophy which clearly holds that the path to higher attainment cannot be traversed along lay occupations and interests of common life. Siddhartha in his quest for enlightenment walked away from all worldly bonds and attachments.
The men who murdered the monk apparently were ingrates, who having being given shelter in the temple land decided to stake a claim to it. It is a fact of life that nothing of this nature happens in Sri Lanka today without the involvement of politics and of course politicians. It is reported that both the murdered monk as well as the assailants were known as supporters of the ruling party. There is a saying of St. Mathew that one cannot serve both God and mammon. The politicians concerned appear to have tilted towards the squatters which invariably influenced the Police to bend that way too. To a simple mind, with the corporeal powers of the politician and the police behind you, one can get away even with murder.
But of course the murder of a Buddhist monk affects a far larger electorate which cannot be ignored. So the enraged “public” extracted their revenge, destroying the structures put up by the assailants in the temple land forcing their families to flee. And according to the reports the assailants were subsequently taken to the custody of an adjacent police station. But shockingly for a so called legitimate State, their dead bodies were found later, dumped on the road-side in a distant village.
A movie based on so great a historical figure as the Siddhartha cannot be humdrum. The mere idea of renunciation of all that we of the mundane world hold dear; wealth, status, family bonds and finally the sense of self itself is so remote to us trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of want that it has an elusive appeal which is compelling. The modern sensibilities are naturally suspicious of miraculous and supernatural explanations. On the other hand, Siddhartha is the story of a man’s overcoming of human limitations by his own effort. A young Prince of 29 leaves the luxury of a royal life to become a wandering ascetic for six long years to finally find enlightenment, without reference to a god or any other “supernatural” force.
The Producers of the movie have chosen to concentrate principally on the early life of the Prince up to the point of him becoming the Buddha. It has been argued at length whether the role of the artist, particularly in the medium of historical films, is to depict a set of events with suitable embellishments or to interpret those events with his artistic intelligence. However attractive a biography, the skeptics of today are bound to challenge the mythical and legendry aspects of any historical record. The relevance of Buddhism to us today surely is in its message, its grappling with the human condition and suffering, the doctrine’s moderation and boundless compassion and at deeper levels its exploration of the chain of cause and effect and the exposition on the absence of a permanent self.
If a film were to concentrate on the biographical aspects of a life lived so many moons ago, what approach best serves its purpose without losing a sense of realism? Do we remain faithful to legend and myth or do we reevaluate the message of that life in terms of advancements in human knowledge and outlook?
We all have our own mental picture of historical times and figures. According to legend our historical heroes are all handsome, strong, champions at whatever task undertaken and righteous .Their female counterparts are extremely pretty and virtues, leading lives which are generally free of labour, spending time mostly on pleasant pursuits. Consequently a producer of a film such as the Siddhartha is bound to face enormous difficulties in casting of the characters as well as portraying the story in the unsentimental terms of today. Has Suddhodana the suitable gravitas for an aging king? Is Devadatha too evil and predictable to be authentic? These are some of the questions the viewers may legitimately ask.
In any movie on a historical subject the producers confront not only the issue of the authenticity of the story but also the realism of the portrayal of the times. For example, in any night-time scene, we may challenge the clear light of the pre-electricity nights. It is inconceivable that lamps and crude torches of that era lighting up a room as florescent bulbs do today. But the story must go on and the audience ought to be able to discern the action on the screen.
In the Buddha story it is his message that is paramount. One wonders however, whether somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the allure of easy rituals and practices while foregoing the fundamentals of the message. If the doctrine is too difficult, will not legend suffice? Today’s pervasive mediocrity seems to have affected the intelligence of our artistic expression as well. A doctrine so sublime calls for clear minds and heightened sensitivities. The gory events of Moratuwa could not have happened in a land of true understanding.