THE STATE AND THE FOSTERING OF RELIGION
Bhikkhu Professor Dhammavihari
The concept in itself looks a highly commendable one. Our own Constitution is said to and believed to contain a clause pertaining to this. Undoubtedly it came into existence, apparently with a concern for the ethics of good government, at a time when the colonial rulers took over the administration of our island country. We believe it was with a serious concern. Let us not distrust its seriousness. But let us not forget that it has been the rule in history that invaders overrun a country anywhere, not only politically, but also religiously and culturally. At the point of the sword and the gun, new religions and alien life styles have been imposed on the conquered, almost everwhere in the world.
At the time when Sri Lanka fell into the hands of the last colonial rulers, it was reckoned in many quarters to be the land of the Buddha. To say the least, it was predominantly a Buddhist land. Even as far back as the 5th century A.D. the Chinese Buddhist monk who visited Sri Lanka knew it as Sinhala - the Land of the Lion People or Shih tse Kuo [ as written in Chinese characters ]. There is not much need for any body to ask for or search for demographic details. Within a period of nearly two thousand years, Sri Lanka had gradually moved into being a land of peace and prosperity, making it widely known to be the granary of the east. This was under the benign teachings of the Buddha who had taught to the world that wonderful art of live and let live, based on the foundations of metta or maitri.
For the peaceful and successful continuance of their rule in the newly conquered territory, the colonial powers had to guarantee to the somewhat sagacious native leadership of the country in those balmy days that they meant no violence to the cultural heritage of this country. Apparently they had heard and known enough of it by then. But certainly they did not come here to save and preserve it for us. It was by no means their avowed mission. But we at times, were duped into believing it to be so.
The legal phrasing in the convention to give prominence to Buddhism and protect it could not have been worded any more scantily. In whose midst was Buddhism going to be made prominent? One would ask. Was there any time or space allocation implied? As for protection, from whom was it to be protected? Do we guess correctly if we said that it was perhaps to enlarge the image of an imagined enemy and thereby glorify the image of the protector. That is why the protesters of today continue to keep asking, and legitimately so, our legal experts as to what these promises of prominence and protection meant. And what they mean to our present custodians. Those words could not be any more vague and evasive.
Even today, Buddhism is the overwhelmingly majority religion. Everybody sees and knows the strategies, at least within the country towards the reversal of that position. Let not the rulers of the land or the ruled put the telescope on to the blind eye on this issue. History as a subject, even though bitter in taste at times, is not a stupid one. It is worth both being taught and studied, with a fair degree of honesty of course, in the schools and the universities, for the lessons it provides. Here we call upon the historians, sociologists and professors of law to step in to put the map right. They need to examine and study the deliberate distortions and exaggerations which writers of history smuggle in from time to time. Today, revisionists and those who rewrite history mischievously cause great damage. We also need to expose and lay bare the evasive legal phrasings which are meant to safeguard at the same time both the prosecution and the defense.
We are reaching a stage in Sri Lankan history today when this question cannot be dodged by anyone, any more. The state which stands to safeguard the interests of the people whom it is pledged to govern has to look into these threats which overhang both majority and minority communities, be it religion or culture. What poor consolation would it be to find the state patronizing and funding funerals and cremations of individuals when the larger scale deaths of institutions and communities is steadily taking place? It is time now to step in to face these situations fair and square.
Many of our neighboring countries are alive to problems of this nature. Their sociologists detect these well in time and warn their governments about averting such disasters. Their legal brains awaken well before such calamitous situations take place and introduce new and adequate updated legislation to deal with and arrest such insidious moves. Such timely action may at times look harsh, and even be labeled so. But governments have to take them up with adequate seriousness.
In terms of Buddhist thinking, we feel that the role of religion should primarily be to make life in the land, life both of man and animal, secure and free from the disaster and destruction which humans are known to bring upon themselves and those around. This sense of insecurity as well as fear and dread into which man puts the society around him is referred to in Buddhism as bhayani and is classified as being fivefold : panca-bhayani. They result from man's own hostile attitude to the world : veràni or panca-verani. This is basically derived from the Buddhist theory of panca-sila. They come about in the breach of these regulatory precepts.
It begins with man's disrespect or scant respect for life, of both man and animal. One's own self being put above all else, humans at times turn stupid enough to dismiss and destroy all others that even appear to stand in one' way, in private life and public life which may range from social, religious to political arenas. At times, this is defended on grounds of self-defense. Individuals as well as larger groups are seen doing this at world level today. But its legitimacy is being contested all the time. Trials, sooner or later, as of war criminals of World War II at Nuremberg, and of more recent ones being attempted in Bosnia and Albania etc. are testimony of this.
Man has also inherited from some misdirected philosophies some-where that the world around him is created for his gleeful exploitation. Ideas of unreplenishable resources of the world and of ecological balancing had lamentably not dawned on him. Until recently, kill and eat to live had become an acceptable norm. That was good enough during days of primitive thinking. But certainly not today. The wind is now blowing in a different direction. People, above and below, in this part of the world need to know of these tremendous world movements. Post-World War II thinking savors of this new attitude to the world we live in. It is one of live and let live, a new attitude of man towards man as well as bird and beast, including even the inanimate in the entire eco-system.
Ashamedly turning away from this heartless attitude of man, wave after wave of new thinking has emerged, at least in the English speaking world as far as we know, during the last three or four decades. Books like Frances M. Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, Peter Singer's Animal Liberation and Save the Animals, Jeremy Riffkin's Beyond Beef and the Breakdown of the Cattle Culture and Victoria Moran's Compassion, the Ultimate Ethic reveal both the folly of rearing and killing of animals for food and man's own misdirected adventure of mishandling nature, thereby wiping out man's chances of survival on this planet. Particularly a book like Biophelia Hypothesis would enlighten us on this issue that no prayers would save us from extinction on this planet at the rate man shows disregard for life.
A state which is statutorily pledged to uphold the culture of Buddhism [ not merely its infra-structure ], and we have no doubt whatsoever that this is what the convention provides for, cannot possibly turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to this primary aspect of Buddhist culture which the world today is very much in need of. Funding Buddhist monasteries and competing to provide them with more than what they need completely misses the mark. In the name of Buddhism, protection of life of man and animal in the land and guaranteeing them security should be the main theme and the priority of the state policy.
This is what the benevolent king Cakkavatti of early Buddhist tradition stood up for. Besides, the saner and more civilized world is now subscribing towards it. King Devanampiya Tissa in whose reign Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka, and who was shamelessly caught in the act of being on the deer hunt for his personal pleasure on that occasion, soon paved the way for a ban of animal slaughter in the land with the policy of ma ghata or 'prohibition of killing in specified areas.' Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. Sri Lanka cannot sell meat to the world. It violates the spirit of Buddhism. Therefore it would amount to a breach of the convention,
This respect for life we sponsor is a priority and the crying need of the day in view of the destruction of life one witnesses all around in the land. Take note of the gruesome killings in the war-torn areas as well as abominable murders of men, women and children of all ages in the village and the town. This is encroaching on animal life too, without any compunction. Whether it be the wanton killing of the elephant with its thinning out population [ to safeguard the village chenas ] or the poaching in the sanctuaries for leopard and deer skins, or the massive scale killing for human consumption, it is killing all the same. Buddhism requires serious action on the part of rulers in this direction. Development policy of any government in this country has necessarily to contain this too, with or without international blessings.
By the convention we are talking about, every government in this country is pledged to uphold Buddhism as the religion of the land. It requires no extra-sensory perception to realize that this implies two major issues. First, it requires that the survival of Buddhism must be safeguarded by the state in the face of diverse threats that are being leveled against it at the moment, both from within the land and from without. Agencies who are known to be involved in these activities endeavor to conceal their identities by engaging in makeshift couplings on international basis, the east with the west. Whether one calls them well-paid sales agents or hired assassins, that seems to be the naked truth. Many countries around us have built safeguards against such activities, including jail sentences and even more, for the miscreants. Where are we? Doubtlessly, a long way more to go.
Secondly, it is for the State to honestly recognize the worth of the religion to which the Britishers undertook in their Convention to give its rightful place. The State must undertake to propagate its cultural content both within the country for the benefit of it inhabitants and to make it widely known to the rest of the world as having a worthy identity of its own. Sri Lanka must surely move in consonance with its cultural heritage. There is nothing in it which the civilized world of today would refuse to accept. These primarily consist of its respect for all forms of life of both man and animal, respect for honesty and integrity in all dealings both individual and social, respect for sexes at all levels both in the home and society, and respect for sanity and soundness of judgment by rejecting drugs and intoxicants. Let us repeat that all these are contained within the universal ethic of panca-sila.
Buddhism in the world today, in both forms known until recently as Mahayana and Vajrayana, is actively engaged in propagating what they now call the teachings of Shakyamuni. Shakyamuni is the historical Buddha Gotama who gave to the world his most humanitarian teaching well over twenty-five centuries ago. They are now obliterating all sectarian differences and are willing to work from a single platform. The impact of this new cultural move of Buddhism, we know for certain, is now globally felt. It is time for Sri Lanka to rise from its slumber. Do not miss this chance of playing even the second fiddle.
The year 2000 is now round the corner. Sri Lanka expects both of the State and its people new thinking and new lines of action on the dawn of the new millennium. This is the writing on the wall.Washington Buddhist Vihara 5017, 16th Sreet NW Washington DC 20011