By W A Wijewardena –
Two prescriptions containing punishment for correction
News was out last week that the Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka had made a controversial public pronouncement. I believe that he has mostly been misunderstood by his critics as well as his followers. The Venerable Thero, in his wisdom, had diagnosed a gloomy future for the Sinhalese Buddhists in the country and come up with two prescriptions as the solution.
One was that, as a protection tactic, he had advised the Sinhala Buddhists not to patronise the businesses owned my Muslims because, in his opinion, they were on a mission to destroy the Sinhala Buddhist nation. The other was an endorsement, albeit quite unwillingly, of a suggestion said to have been made by some lay-female Buddhist devotees. Apparently, they are said to have opined that a Muslim physician alleged to have sterilised thousands of Sinhala Buddhist mothers should be stoned by way of punishment.
If true, this had been a horrendous crime committed against humanity deserving punishment in its severest form. The Chief Prelate had not said that it was only the Muslims that should be punished. He had said that if it had been committed by a Sinhalese physician, he deserved to be cut into pieces. This part of his speech had been missed by his critics as well as his fans:
Punishing an offender by stoning is a practice being adopted widely in certain Islamic countries today. Similarly, cutting an offender into pieces is one of the 32 types of punishments meted to guilty persons by ancient Sinhala kings. These two prescriptions indicate that the Chief Prelate is a firm believer in punishment for correction of errant citizens, a course not endorsed by the Buddha in any form.
The Buddha’s prescription was to win over critics through fair dialogue
This was surely a verbal onslaught delivered by the Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter without considering its subsequent repercussions. It was sweet music to those extreme elements among the Sinhalese who were waiting for validation of their ulterior motive of displacing Muslims who were in business. Hence, it attracted criticism on two counts.
First, it has been said that it is improper for a disciple of the Buddha, an Enlightened One who had propagated compassion even to unseen species, to spread venom in to the hearts of the people. Second, some had demanded the Government to take legal action against him for creating disharmony among different religious groups in the country.
In my view, the more appropriate way to handle his case has been not via legal action but by following the Buddha’s prescription when faced with such a disagreeing situation. In the Brahmajala Sutta in Digha Nikaya, the Buddha had advised the Bhikkus that they should not be offended by dispraise of the Buddha by critics and nor should they be elated by praises of the Buddha by praising tongues. That was because either reaction was harmful to the Bhikkus. In the case of dispraise, the Bhikkus have to unravel the falsehood and explain to the critics that for such and such reason, what the critics have said is untrue. If it is praise, instead of being jubilant, they should explain in all humbleness for such and such reasons, what is said is true.
It should, therefore, be explained to the Chief Prelate that ‘for these reasons, he may be correct and for these reasons, he is wrong’. As a true disciple of the Buddha, he should have an open mind to listen to and grasp such explanations.
Repercussions should be taken into account
The Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter is an influential Buddhist monk who could, through his discourses, change the course of Sri Lanka’s future.
He had made his call on Sinhala Buddhists, but Sri Lanka is a nation made up of multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual Homo sapiens. Consequently, any change in the perception, mindset and goals of Sinhala Buddhists has far-reaching influence on the Sinhala Buddhists and their interconnection with other ethnic and religious groups. The new Sri Lankan outlook so created will have repercussions, both beneficial and injurious, on its connection with the global community at large out there.
As the Buddha had preached, what we have today is the fruit of a cause created yesterday. What we will have tomorrow is the outcome of what we have done today. Because of these wide repercussions, it is necessary to have a productive multilogue – a discussion participated by many at the same time – across the nation to identify the validities as well as shortcomings of what the Chief Prelate had opined in his wisdom.
While many critics have roundly condemned his speech, no one has attempted to analyse it in finer detail. There has been a strange silence by the Buddhist clergy or other religious leaders about the opinion expressed by the Chief Prelate.
In this background, a lone Buddhist monk, Ven. Galkande Dhammananda, has broken the silence by reminding Sri Lankans of the Buddha’s preaching that one should not spread hatred in one’s speech. Even then, he has been careful not to refer to the two prescriptions suggested by the Chief Prelate.
Man in the street is alive to the issue
Even though this issue has not been discussed in minute detail by the intelligentsia of the country, the situation at the street level has been different. My hairdresser has been jubilant over what the Chief Prelate had pronounced and he could not hide his admiration about it. In his view, Sri Lanka is poor today because of the domination of the economy by Muslims, though it was a fallacious conclusion. Similar strong sentiments were expressed by three-wheel drivers whom I normally engage for short trips.
There was hardly anyone who spoke of the long term adverse consequences of the two prescriptions made by the Chief Prelate. Those who endorsed him did not mind even the twisting of the legal system if it helped them to find the alleged parties guilty.
An informal multilogue
In this background, I got the opportunity to eavesdrop a multilogue that took place among some construction workers – tile layers, helpers and errand boys – who were laying tiles in a new house being built next to mine. It was a welcome development that they had chosen to discuss an important current issue in public. Such open discussions are a must for democracy to survive and prosper.
Animal characters are present in groups
In group dynamics, those who participate in group discussions are usually equated to characters borrowed from the animal world.
There are foxes that turn groups upside down by throwing incendiary opinions into the group. They enjoy immensely when their malicious interventions derail the group from its normal goal. Opposite to them, there are rabbits that outsmart foxes by presenting alternative opinions.
There are tigers who are simply censors. When they hear something in the group discussion which they do not like, they simply growl to compel others to forced silence.
A giraffe in the group will use its long neck to spy on others but do not talk at group discussions at all. Doves are the peace makers in groups when they become violent.
Lions sit on judgment and when the parties begin to fight with each other, separate them by roaring so that they could continue the group discussions. They are the people who put sanity into the heads of group members by impartially and objectively explaining facts to them.
A heated discussion
In this particular group in my neighbourhood, I found the presence of all the animals mentioned above.
The fox said that the Sinhala Buddhist nation is being destroyed by Muslims who have the ulterior motive of taking command of the Sri Lankan state and along with that, Sri Lanka’s economy as well. Echoing the sentiments expressed by the Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter, the fox very forcefully suggested that the Buddhists should boycott the Muslim businesses. He also said that in Islamic countries, the offenders of serious crimes are stoned to death and similar punishments should also be introduced in Sri Lanka too.
He was not countered directly by anyone in the group, but the rabbit very respectfully presented that it might create problems for them too because they would not be able to continue their jobs. The tiger did not like it and it immediately put the rabbit to silence by growling at what it said.
There was a giraffe in the group and it simply looked at each other’s face without uttering a single word. It appeared that the giraffe did not understand what was going on.
The lion in the group was the young house owner who has been working in an Islamic state in the Middle East. It was his job to put sanity into the heads of the group members but he very strangely kept himself silent. There was no need for a dove because the group discussion did not turn violent. After about a half an hour, it seemed that they all had become bored of the issue and changed the topic.
The strange silence of the lion
What was obvious in this multilogue was the failure of the lion – the wise man in the group – to analyse the issue and present it in such a way that other members could easily grasp it. When an economy is keeping itself at low ebb, everyone suffers but there is a tendency to find a villain responsible for their hardships. With its low economic growth for the last seven years without any hope of an economic recovery within the foreseeable future, it is natural for Sinhala traders in Sri Lanka to harbour the thought that it is the Muslim traders who are responsible for it.
Hence, without much thought, they tend to plead to the Sinhala people to boycott Muslim business enterprises. But what they do not realise is that an economy, like any other ecosystem, is interconnected with different communities feeding on and nourishing each other at the same time.
An economy is made up of different parts
An economy is a wonderful creature made up of a large number of people belonging to many different religions, ethnic groups, races, castes or classes. All these people are interconnected and interdependent. They are organised to fulfil only one objective: That is, to provide the maximum wellbeing to everyone. Each person is a cog in a massive cog-wheel that turns constantly to produce goods and services needed by people in an economy. Each cog is important and needed for this production process.
One cannot give undue importance to one particular cog and downplay the role played by others; they all are equally important and needed for the massive cog-wheel to turn smoothly. Thus, when Muslim businesses are boycotted, the businesses belonging to Sinhala Buddhists too are affected. Because of the interdependency, when Muslim businesses collapse, so do the businesses belonging to the Sinhalese. If this simple truth is not understood by the Sinhalese, they would perish along with the Muslims.
Every organ in the human body is important
This process can be equated to the functioning of the human body consisting of many different parts and organs. Nature has seen to it that all those parts and organs are needed for the perfect working of the body. There is no single organ or single part that does not provide a useful service to the overall working of the body.
For instance, till recently, many believed that the appendix in the human body does not provide any service and, therefore, could be excised without loss to the body’s functions. But the scientists at Duke University in USA have now found that the appendix is a depository of beneficial bacteria that are needed for the proper digestion of foods in the stomach and whenever those bacteria are depleted due to illness or medication, the appendix releases such bacteria from its stocks.
Thus, removing or constraining the working of a single organ or a part of a body makes it imperfect and the person owning the body will feel its adverse effects forthwith.
Hand cannot fight with leg without destroying itself
Then, what happens if one part, say the hand, declares war on another part, say the leg, alleging that the leg is trying to take over the body making the hand unimportant? Surely, this war will not be beneficial to the overall functioning of the body because the war will make it impotent and imperfect. Both the hand and the leg are interconnected and interdependent; one cannot function without the other. If the hand is successful in paralysing the leg, then, the hand too gets paralysed and the body becomes disfunctioning.
Fortunately, in such a disastrous conflict, there is a supreme arbiter who will discipline the wrongly moving hand. That arbiter is the brain which does not take sides and functions only with the objective of maintaining the stability and sustenance of the overall body. In other words, the brain views the overall picture and sees beyond the narrow vision of the hand.
If the brain of a nation – religious leaders and politicians – incites one organ of the body to declare war against another organ, the eventual casualty would be the body itself.
Civilised nations abhor cruel punishments
All civilised nations today have moved away from cruel punishments that are meted out to offenders. Though it is true that in some Islamic countries the offenders are hanged, beheaded or stoned in the town square publicly, it is not a good example for Sri Lanka to follow. Sri Lanka’s punishment system is well streamlined so as to be commensurate with the offence committed. Even though the capital punishment is there in the law book, it has not been carried out for the last four decades. Given this background, the suggestion that offenders should be stoned if they are Muslims and cut to pieces if they are Sinhalese means that Sri Lanka should throw away its much-praised civilisation and go backward in history to the era of savages.
The silent citizens are an enemy of democracy
In every society, there are some people whose job is to analyse issues and present to citizens so that they could make informed judgments. In group dynamics, it is the lion that has been entrusted with this responsibility. But, if the lion fails to do its job, so does the whole society. Hence, for democracy to survive and thrive, those who are responsible in societies to keep the masses educated should do their job without failure.
*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, can be reached at email@example.com
Previous parts of Enemies of Democracy can be read here