12 August 2012

Janatha Bhavatu Dhammiko

[May the people be righteous!]

In 2001, when Dulles Alahapperuma ‘retired’ from politics he offered what was then a remarkable explanation: ‘Politics is made of brown (soiled) people and they don’t like white (clean) people because then their brownness gets exposed’.  True.  Dulles may have found compelling reasons to reverse that decision.  It must say something about him and his colleagues as well as the brown-white issue, but that’s his business.  The question is, ‘is it only the politician who is brown?’
We have politicians, officials, professionals, corporate personalities, police officers, academics and even judges who are off white in colour.  The ‘white’ are a miniscule minority, not just in Sri Lanka but the world over.  If you want institutional color, then consider the fact that the White House if not just discolored but is a positive eye-sore. The United Nations too. No, not even religious institutions are white.  Scandal, child abuse, money-laundering, political machination and all the other regular societal ills are not foreign to religious institutions.  The Vatican cannot be proud and neither can other and less prominent religious outfits.  All brown. 
The saddest part of it and perhaps the root cause of brownness is the fact that people themselves are not clean.  One doesn’t have to be squeaky white, but one certainly cannot justify muddy-brown.  They are complicit in browning.  In Sri Lanka you vote for the local government politician who has profited immensely from public office because he repaired a road or cleaned up a canal using your own tax money.  It’s like saying ‘thank you’ to the bank teller for giving you your own money which has enriched the bank and its shareholders.  The teller rarely says ‘thank you’.
And yet, the finger is pointed at politician and regime.  There is criticism but no self-criticism.  The problem is one of morality.  If we as a people cut corners or look the other way for reasons of convenience, we forfeit the moral authority to cry foul when rulers do what is politically expedient.  
 ‘Raja Bhavatu Dhammiko’ means ‘May the king (ruler, leader) be true to the dhamma’.  It is a wish for righteousness.  One can argue about cultural relativism and the realities of changing times, but whatever one’s faith is or whatever the dominant faith in a particular polity, the ‘good’ and the ‘right’ are marked by easy recognition.  White has shades but it is different from brown.  Rulers know, the people also know. 
‘Janatha Bhavatu Dhammiko’ would by the same token refer to the need for citizens to be righteous, responsible and upright.  One can argue that one is not obtained without the other of course but it seems that we speak more of ruler-flaw and little or nothing about self-flaw.  If we don’t get it right we feed ruler-wrong. 
Too often we reduce the bhavatu dhammiko part to political activism.  Admittedly that is an important part of engaging effectively with regime for better outcome. A good religious analogy would be the siuvanak pirisa (the four categories of persons) whose active and righteous engagement and interaction is critical for the furtherance of the sasana (Buddhist Order), the ‘four’ being bikkhu, bikkhuni, upasaka and upasika (the clergy and the lay persons of each gender).  On the other hand, political affiliation or engagement with each other, while necessary, is certainly not sufficient conditions to obtain the proverbial political ideal of Kethumati.  It boils down to self-discipline which involves frequent reflection and self-assessment, typically in terms of the corpus of beliefs or religious tenets one subscribes to. If we are not good, our politics won’t be either.   
‘What have I done?’ and ‘What have we done?’ are then necessary first questions that require response prior to the easier, convenient and in the long run duplicitous and outcome-compromising ‘What have you done?’ and ‘What are you doing?’ 
We don’t have the right to be horrified at someone cutting a tree to widen a road or beautify a city if we ourselves have not planted and tended trees.  We cannot complain about over-harvesting oceanic resources if we are fish-gluttons.  We can’t blame ’takers’ and ‘taking’ if we are ‘givers’.   
When we ignore ‘self’ (or its collective extension: community, trade union, political party etc), it doesn’t mean we cannot achieve victory.  Whether the entire country benefits of course is something else.  In the long run, we collectively lose and worse, suffer greatly.  The LTTE and the Tamil community provide adequate examples. FUTA (Federation of University Teachers’ Associations) is in the process of proving the point, one might add. 
Janatha Bhavatu Dhammiko is something to think about. Let us be righteous.  That is, only and if only we are uncomfortable being brown, not in skin-color but in thought, word and deed, the thun-dora or three doorways to betterment or decay.
['The Nation' Editorial, August 12, 2012]