By Charles Sarvan –
With reference to the tourist deported because she had on her person a tattoo of the Enlightened One, while Judaism and Islam strictly prohibit any depiction of Jehovah and Allah respectively, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism abound in representations of the divine. It seems to me that the step from representation to tattoo is not that far.
Some Christians wear a cross to signal their belief but I personally haven’t seen Jesus or Mary tattooed on a human body. Perhaps, there are? In a way, a religious tattoo makes sense because one cannot get physically closer. Secondly, a tattoo is permanently, constantly, there unlike, for example, with a cross worn round the neck which can be taken off. Of course, as with much else, it all depends on the intention: is the tattoo meant to ridicule and make fun of or is to express worship and spiritual closeness? If the latter applies to the deportee, then a fervent Buddhist has been expelled, disillusioned. I find it difficult to believe that anyone would, out of a sense of irreverent fun, tattoo herself or himself: an exercise not without pain, in both physical and financial terms.
I have wondered at the ready propensity of believers, irrespective of religion, to resort to violence if and when they feel their god has been insulted. Let us say I am a fervent believer in a god called Ogun. I believe Ogun is all-knowing and all-powerful; and that ultimate justice rests in his hands. Now, if someone insults Ogun, should I get infuriated or should I feel sorry for the person, that s/he, unlike fortunate me, doesn’t know the truth of Ogun? Isn’t my Ogun, since he is omniscient and omnipotent, capable for taking care of himself? Isn’t final justice with him? Rather than almighty god protecting human beings, puny human beings feel impelled to protect their all-powerful god or gods.
Or is it that I boil in anger for fear that, if I wasn’t outraged, Ogun will get angry with me; think I didn’t care that he was insulted and punish, not his denigrators, but me?
Or is it that, identifying with Ogun, I see the insult as ultimately aimed at me? If so, isn’t the outrage, violence and punitive action really about mortal me rather than about divine Ogun? My Ogun has been insulted – the emphasis being on “my”. We are in the realms of the psychology and the politics of religion.
If I punish someone who has insulted Ogun, will that help in converting non-believers? Will punitive measures convince non-Ogun followers that Ogun is, after all, the true god? Or will they merely be afraid of me? Fear is often imposed externally; it comes from outside while respect is what we voluntarily accord, however reluctantly. I may fear a bully but have no respect – indeed, only contempt – for him. We humans tend to confuse fear for respect. Shouldn’t I and my fellow Ogun believers opt for the much harder course of winning respect and, eventually, through respect, genuine conversion? But then, it’s so much easier to be abusive, to deport, to assault individuals and to attack places of worship. These reactions and actions have the advantage of leaving me with feelings of self-righteousness; that I am a pious and righteous believer. (Ironically, in its other meaning, “tattoo” has a martial association.) Truly, the greatest damage to the essence of a religious doctrine is done not by those against it but by its most fanatical adherents.
By way of a postscript: I smile wryly when, sometimes, in the windows of obscenely expensive shops in the West and restaurants (never mind that true Buddhists are vegetarian), I see a statue of the Soul of Great Compassion or, for that matter, of Che Guevara – both of whom stood against much that such shops and restaurants represent. Indeed, one can exclaim, “O tempora, o mores!”