Colombo Telegraph

Buddha, Bonobos, Lincoln, And Sri Lankans

 By Jagath Asoka

DR. Jagath Asoka

Scientists, philosophers, theologians, and moralists have been arguing whether human morality is imposed from above or evoked innately. When scientists say that moral behavior is a product of evolution, theologians would vehemently disagree.

What is the origin of morality and equality? Most people think that morality and equality come from the Buddha, God, Jesus, Prophets, religion, or from some transcendent wisdom. It is not in concordance with what evolution shows us; our species is much older than religion. To think that our ancestors had no sense of right and wrong before the birth of religion, God, Jesus, or the Buddha is absolutely asinine. Our ancestors had moral systems before religion. It is not far-fetched to say that moral systems gave birth to religion in various forms and manifestations. Morality is essential for our survival as a species because, often, it puts community, society, or nation before the individual. Equality is the pinnacle of morality. To think and believe that all people are created equal is essential for our own survival, and the survival of our species. Our struggle for equality continues. Both sages and sagacious politicians—the Buddha and Lincoln—have promulgated equality. Lincoln was assassinated for promulgating his belief that “All men are created equal”—Thomas Jefferson first used this phrase—All men are created equal—in the Declaration of Independence.

Humans are not the only mammals who express emotions that we would associate with equality, empathy, and fairness. Our nearest ape cousins—bonobos, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons and siamangs—express the same emotions because evolution has shaped our moral behavior. Theologians think that God introduced us to morality, but biologists think that evolution has shaped our morality. Biologists are not bashing and trashing religion. Anatomically, anthropoid apes—bonobos, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons and siamangs—resemble human beings. It seems that human beings have a lot in common with bonobos than with chimpanzees. Compared to chimpanzees, bonobos are less aggressive because they often have sex, giving credence to the slogan: Make Love, Not War.

Biologists would say that compassion, morality, justice, egalitarianism, etc are a product of evolution, whereas theologians would say it is due to divine afflation. In Buddhism, there is no omnipotent, omniscient, and ubiquitous God; instead, compassion—suffering with—is the heart of Buddha’s teaching. Is this compassion that the Buddha talked about inherited, innate, and evoked spontaneously? Or is it developed through mediation, constant effort, and wisdom gained through mesmerizing mediation? Buddhists are theists to some extent, but not monotheists. So, in Buddhism, our human mind, which has evolved over the millennia, is the vehicle of compassion, morality, justice, egalitarianism, hatred, greed, sorrow, etc; these feelings and emotions can be further developed, controlled, and practiced if one were to observe these feelings as they arise. The Buddha declared that one is a Brahman not by birth, but by deportment; the Buddha promulgated that all people are equal; equality of all men and women, regardless of their caste, ethnicity, and race—compare and juxtapose Buddha’s message with Jefferson’s words, “All men are created equal.” The Buddha did not talk about our nearest ape cousins and their moral behavior, compassion, empathy, altruism, and fairness, but our modern scientists have found out that not only human beings but also our ape cousins express emotions that we would normally associate with altruism, equality, empathy, and fairness. Here are some interesting observations related to our primates and other animals.

Scientists have been studying and observing the emotionally guided moral behavior of our closest relatives such as chimpanzees and bonobos. Dr. Frans de Waal, the primatologist at Emory University, in a landmark study, has found that elephants would help their friends move heavy boxes, chimps would refuse to accept undeserved rewards, and bonobos would comfort losers after a fight. De Waal’s observations keep throwing a monkey wrench into religion’s self-assigned monopoly on morality; as far as religion and theology are concerned, the enforcer of good behavior is an omniscient deity, whose wrath dictates the moral behavior of his creatures; or morality is transmitted through various incarnations by karma. These animal observations of De Waal also throw a monkey wrench into Darwinian fundamentalism, which implies that all our actions are dictated by selfish genes. From these observations, it seems that emotions that we would associate with pious and ethical behavior, such as compassion, empathy, altruism, and fairness are innate, and have no divine afflation; God, gods, Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha have nothing to do with imposing our moral behavior; they did not introduce us to ethical behavior and morality; it was evolution that shaped our moral behavior as we evolved. Since the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Prophets in the Bible and Koran are human beings, they, too, inherited these patterns of behavior through evolution. Since we evolved from our ape cousins, we inherited these patterns of behavior from them, not from God; neither the Buddha nor Jesus gave these patterns of behavior to us. It seems like we can learn a lot from our ape cousins than from any religion, God, Jesus, or the Buddha. Often, morality and ethical behavior recognize the needs of the individual—often selfish—but put society or community before the individual because without families, societies, and communities, we cannot thrive, individually; we cannot survive as a species, individually; we cannot evolve as a species, individually.

It was morality that drove Lincoln to declare Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln did not have a permanent smile on his face; when I envision Lincoln, I see in my mind’s eye, a long, discomfited figure, with an unadorned, furrowed face; a man with a mind, manifestly worried in part, and in part somewhat insouciant. There were over four million African-American slaves; even free African-Americans did not enjoy equality; simply, in the USA there was no equality before the American Civil War. On 19 Nov 1886, Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, where he was not even the chief guest; he reiterated and scrutinized the founding principles of the United States in the context of the American Civil War; beginning with the memorable phrase “Four score and seven years ago,” in just over two minutes, Lincoln reminded the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence, written at the onset of the American Revolution in 1776. In less than two minutes, he not only consecrated the sacrifices of those who gave their lives at Gettysburg but also extolled the virtues of those who were alive to ensure that America’s democracy would survive:  “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth (Lincoln).” Now, when you swallow the garbage and filth that come out of our Sri Lankan politicians and asinine political pundits and sycophants with alacrity, think of Lincoln’s original 272 words.

Where is our Gettysburg Address? Is there equality in Sri Lanka after our ethnic war? Can Sri Lankans say the same things about the final battle against Tamil terrorists since our victory is tainted with allegations of war crimes? Are we going to dedicate a portion of that final battle field in Sri Lanka, as a final resting place for those who gave their lives so that Sri Lanka might live as an undivided country? Here is what Lincoln said:  “In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Gettysburg Address is Lincoln’s distilled wisdom of the American Civil War. Where is the distilled wisdom of Mahinda Rajapakasa of the Sri Lankan civil war? The two major ideas of Lincoln’s speech were that, first, the founding principle of the United States was the equality—Jefferson’s words, “All men are created equal; second, the principle of democracy: Government of the people, by the people, and for people.

As writers, it is our duty to put profound questions on the national agenda. What is the founding principle of Sri Lanka, equality of all ethnic groups? Can you honestly say that Sri Lankan government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people?” In our context, “people” means all ethnic groups: Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, and other non-specified Sri Lankan minorities. We have not divided Sri Lanka into two states for the time being, but if we do not address the grievances of minorities, is it worth for the minorities to live in an undivided Sri Lanka?

Are there any similarities between the American Civil War and Sri Lankan ethnic war? Sinhala terrorists terrorized Sri Lanka before Tamil terrorists did. In deeper sense, both groups were fighting for equality, fairness, and justice: the same emotions expressed even by our ape cousins. What is the lesson that Sri Lankans has learned from the turmoil and tragedy endured for thirty years during our ethnic conflict? “What can Sri Lankans learn from the central ideas embedded in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and how do these ideas apply to Sri Lanka today?

Both Civil wars—in the US and Sri Lanka—tested whether each nation could endure without being divided. In both countries, people died so that the nation would live undivided.

Do Sri Lankans sincerely believe that all Sri Lankan citizens are created equal? Are Sri Lankans better than their ape cousins when it comes to equality of all Sri Lankans and fairness for all Sri Lankans?

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