09 July 2012

Religious Consciousness Unlimited

Pradeep Jeganathan wrote a thoughtful article on the history and meaning associated with incidents in Wanduramba and Dambulla, both involving bikkhusI (The Nation, July 1, 2012).  Pradeep brings in and locates historically things such as doctrinal disputes and contrasts these with the umbrage-ridden objections evident in Dambulla and Wanduramba.
More importantly, Pradeep argues that the notion of ‘sacred Buddhist space’, privileged and which found political expression in Dambulla s not ‘ancient’.  Moreover, in the case of Wanduramba, the objection to ‘false belief’, he argues is not some ideological predilection that can be sourced to some distant past.  What is key in the ‘now’ as opposed to a ‘then’, according to Pradeep, is a ‘consciousness’ of something ‘Buddhist’ or rather a battle for securing consciousness on those lines, with such consciousness and battles thereto being principally products of the colonial encounter. 

Pradeep says, ‘the very idea of Sinhala Buddhist consciousness is modern; it doesn’t go back to the fifth century or sixth (which is) an idea that must be abandoned because it’s silly’.  He adds, however, that whether or not it’s old or now, what does matter is ‘the idea that to be authentic, to be faithful, and to be good, we have to be “pure” to the point of intolerance, angry to the point of direct violence against someone or something that is not ours’.  I am not sure when ‘Sinhala Buddhist consciousness’ was birthed, but the ‘when’ of it, I agree, is not relevant.  The ‘how’, though, is not something that can be swept under the ‘colonial product’ carpet, for that carpet is made of all kinds of strands which are part and parcel of the consciousness tangle of the day.  I will get back to this presently.

I wholeheartedly agree with Pradeep about ‘what really matters’.  The Holy Quran offers reflective food: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error’ (Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 256).  There is no need to concretize ‘truth’ in idol or monument, and by the same token the affirmation of fidelity to ‘truth’ does not warrant destruction of monument or murder of non-believer. 

Similarly, the Buddha Siddharta Gauthama offered the following point to his bikkhus for reflection: ‘Bikkhave: thathagathassa dhamma vinayo vivato virochati no paticcanno’; pointing out that (like the sun and moon) the doctrine offers light or shines or illuminates when it is open (and not when closed).  This advocacy also resonates with the Buddha’s Charter on Free Inquiry (Kalama Sutra) and indeed in the attribute of the doctrine referred to as Ehi-Passiko (Come witness, explore, investigate!). A corollary that the Buddha offers points to a method of reacting to what the unenlightened or prthagjana might perceive as ‘false’: that which is false or erroneous thrives when hidden.  As such it is in the interest of truth to allow free reign to that which is considered ‘false’.  In Dambulla and in Wanduramba, the umbrage expressed was patently anti-Buddhist, therefore. 

What I find problematic in Pradeep’s argument is the easy play on ‘consciousness’ and the sloppy dismissal ‘colonial product’ even if one conceded the limitations of space and the ‘Buddhist-heavy’ nature of the subject under discussion.  It gives the impression that the Colonial Encounter was something that was and is no more and that after it was over the only thing that remained was Buddhist or Sinhala-Buddhist ‘consciousness’ and moreover that this particular ‘consciousness’ is only about vandalism.  In other words, that those who are ‘conscious’ in the ‘Buddhist’ kind of way articulate it only in Dambulla or Wanduramba ‘ways’. 

If there was no ‘consciousness’ in the ‘then’, then can we assume that it was because there was no (violent) objector to things Buddhist, just like there was no need to have ‘Buddhist’ schools (the first, the Dodanduwa Sri Piyaratana Vidyalaya, by the way is being systematically demolished in every sense of the word) because education being associated with pirivena was a given? 

Was there no religion-associated ‘consciousnes’ in the Colonial Encounter?  Pradeep does mention Christianity.  What of the violence of that particular consciousness and the privileging that went with it right up to Independence and even thereafter, not to mention vicious vilification campaigns and aggressive and distasteful conversion drives?  Buddhists, conscious or otherwise, don’t operate in a consciousness-containment devoid of other consciousnesses.  If ‘consciousness’ is a given in contemporary society, then contending consciousnesss will clash.  Telling Buddhists to ‘forget it’ won’t be enough until such time people of all faiths are enlightened as per the definitions of the word in the faith of their choice.  I don’t think this is what Pradeep intends, but I think by opening the issue of ‘Buddhist consciousness’, he has also invited discussion on all consciousnesses in play here.  I believe he is amply endowed with the intellect to comment on these as well.  I hope he will. 
Sadly, all faiths have large canons or at least extrapolations of the word of particular prophets or religious leaders, often ‘haloed’ by the largely unverified tag ‘Word of God’ or some similar overarching ‘indisputable’.  It makes for selectivity.  It makes for application for patently this-worldly matters, usually political and communal/religious enlarging. 

We can call all religious leaders to ‘stay calm’. We can tell them ‘that’s now what the book says’.  As a Buddhist I can debate with fellow Buddhists.  It would be presumptuous for me to preach to Christians or Muslims or Hindus on the articles of their particular faith.  I can but suggest that self-reflection might help.  In the end, all that I can control is what I do.  The same goes for Pradeep.