By Charles Sarvan –
I read in Colombo Telegraph the claim by the Prime Minister, Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe, that the previous President and his supporters are forming, fomenting and are about to unleash a “new fascist Buddhist movement”. It reminded me of Shakespeare’s history play, Julius Caesar (Act 3, Scene 1) from which I adapt and quote a few lines: Shout “Chaos!”, and then let loose the dogs of violence and destruction. Blood and destruction shall become normal, and all pity will be choked by evil deeds.
It is not easy to think of a greater contrast than that between violence and Buddhism. Violence in the name of the Buddha, the Soul of Great Compassion, is an ironic and tragic contradiction. I have suggested elsewhere the following proposition for consideration: Religious doctrine is divine, religion is human. What I mean is that while the original doctrine is claimed to have a divine or near-divine origin (be it from the teaching of the Buddha, of Christ or the Prophet Mohammed), religion with all its paraphernalia, myths and rituals included, is what humanity makes of this doctrine. Perhaps this goes towards explaining how the same religious doctrine can be expressed in very different forms at different times and in different places? Rather than pristine religious doctrine influencing (if not determining) politics, man-made religion becomes an instrument of politics, justifying, even sanctifying, violence and cruelty on the lines of: “I do it not for me but for our religion. God and religion are far more important than mere non-believing human beings”. The willingness to be violent and cruel is made the mark of religiosity: the greater the hate, cruelty and injustice, the greater the piety. For example, one thinks at random of the Spanish Conquistadors virtuously recording that they saved the souls of Native-American babies by baptising them before dashing their brains out.
As for violence and Buddhism, I quote from the Buddhist folk-tale Monkey, by Wu Ch’eng-en, 1500 – 1580, translated into English by Arthur Walley. Page reference is to the Grove Press edition, New York, 1970. “A priest, said Tripitaka, should be ready to die rather than commit acts of violence” (pages 132-133). “To save one life is better than to build a seven-storeyed” place of worship (pages 194 & 256) “Hereupon the Tathagata opened the mouth of compassion and gave vent to the mercy of his heart”: In the bounds of your land “greed, slaughter, lust and lying have long prevailed. There is no respect for Buddha’s teaching, no striving towards good works” (page 283).
Facing the threat of a political and civic tsunami, we have the statement of the Friday Forum (Colombo Telegraph, 27 January 2016) and articles by concerned and caring citizens such as, among others, Sharmini Serasinghe. While I admire and applaud, I confess I also have some doubts. For a start (and as I have written elsewhere), rather than speak about the people or for the people, one must speak with the people. And to speak with the folk, one must speak not only in their language (in this case, Sinhala) but in terms understood by them; in their idiom.
The political right appropriates nationalism. Those who are moderate; those whose social conscience is wide and inclusive, are thought not to be patriotic while the more extreme right (“racist”) one is, the more nationalist he is deemed to be. But this begs the question, “What does it mean to be a nationalist?” I quote words from an article by John King about Britain today titled ‘Flying the flag’ (New Statesman, London, 22-28 January 2016, pp. 28-9). They can, mutatis mutandis, be applied to Sri Lanka:
“Standing up to the multinationals and banks, nationalising and protecting core industries, progressively taxing the mega-wealthy, returning tax credits to those who need them, protecting the public sector, backing open-minded trade unions that fight for the rights of hard-working people, confronting a housing crisis that hurts millions, backing all those vulnerable souls being bullied in the name of “austerity”, dealing with the social cleansing/gentrification of London – this is patriotism if your definition of a country is its citizens and its culture, and this should go a long way towards winning every single election, yet it has not worked out that way.”
While under a dictatorship, the people can to a degree absolve themselves of responsibility, in a democracy a people get the government they vote for and deserve. There is a tendency in some to blame politicians, but do politicians create certain feelings and attitudes or do they cater to, and exacerbate, already existing forces? Isn’t it a symbiotic relationship, the one feeding on the other?
Having come to power on waves of violence can politicians, even if they wish to, calm the storm they churned up? Decency, inclusion and generosity are not tolerated by so-called “nationalists”; concessions and a measure of justice are trumpeted as the most grave of betrayals by them. Mahatma Gandhi was not killed by a Moslem but by a Hindu; Yitzhak Rabin, the most highly decorated general in the Israeli army, was not killed by a Moslem Palestinian but by a Jew; S W R D Bandaranaike was not killed by a Hindu Tamil but by a Sinhalese Buddhist monk. Populist “Banda” was a helpless captive, and then a victim of the fires he himself had irresponsibly and with over-confidence stoked. The present President treads a delicate and difficult path, both in personal and political terms.
Of course, this assumes that the President genuinely wishes to help usher in a completely new Sri Lanka, one marked by the rule of law and justice, equality and harmony. One recalls the dream of Rabindranath Tagore for his country:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. (1910)
Granted this is also the dream of the present President, there are many within administrative and bureaucratic spheres, not to mention the security forces and some Buddhist monks, who have a quite different agenda. They are emboldened to ignore, if not flout, directives they dislike confident they can directly and successfully appeal to the emotions of the masses. Besides, the past President was so blatant in corruption, nepotism and ‘cronyism’ that the Island longed for a “cleanser” but it appears some now think the present incumbent is different only in degree and not in essence.
The efforts being made to bring in justice and good governance are not be discouraged: what’s urgently needed is wider, more active, participation and even more, not less, effort. (I hope this sharing of some thoughts will be seen as a minor but well-meant contribution.) Several “noble” (in the Buddhist sense) souls stand as example and inspiration, among them individuals such as Vijaya Kumaratunga, Richard de Zoysa, Adrian Wijemanne, Anne Abeyasekara. A Luta Continua: there’s no alternative.