Opium Of The Masses
Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,
wrote the Roman poet Lucretius (99-55 BC): "Such evil
deeds could religion prompt." We have no reason to
believe that the poet Lucretius spent his formative years in
Trincomalee, but his insight into the link between religion
and evil suggests he might well have done so. Laying the poet
Lucretius to one side for the nonce however, it behoves us to
ponder a while on the recent goings on in Trincomalee, which
has in the last fortnight become a hotbed of discontent.
The trouble started after a nebulous
body known as the Trincomalee Three Wheeler Drivers'
Association led by one Keerthi Piyalal surreptitiously erected
a statue of the Buddha on land belonging to the Urban Council,
in a prominent location beside the Trincomalee clock tower.
Unlike the placement of most religious icons, which are
accompanied by much fanfare and chanting of sacred verse, this
statue found its way to its present home in stealth, in the
dead of night. Piyalal is not one for ritual: he just gets on
with the job. And being a three-wheeler driver, his brow a-dew
with honest sweat, his toil knows no end: his is truly a day
and night service to mankind.
Its population composed in equal parts
of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims (and smattered with a small
but influential sprinkling of Christians), the Trincomalee
District is widely touted as a model of peaceful coexistence.
Sinhalese shops do brisk business cheek by jowl with Tamil
emporia in the squalid business district, while Muslim
fishermen share the golden beaches with their Tamil brethren.
When Piyalal finds his three wheeler flagged down by a fare,
he rarely stops to ascertain their religious persuasion or
their racial chemistry. It is all rather reminiscent of
Anatevka, the village that is the setting of Fiddler On The
Roof: "We don't bother them and they don't bother
Not any more. Piyalal's action drew
outrage from an equally extreme faction of the Hindu community
which, orchestrated by the LTTE, called for a hartal. Shops,
schools, public transport and commercial activity were all
switched off. Grenades thrown in the course of the protest
killed one, and a further three were injured. The tension
resulted in life coming to a standstill in Trincomalee.
Tourists from hotels that had just begun recovering from the
tsunami were seen fleeing for their lives.
Stepping courageously into the fray,
Trincomalee Magistrate, M. Ganesharajah urged the police to
"take all possible steps to temporarily remove the
statue" pending a final decision by the Urban Council (it
was, after all, the council land on which the statue had been
foisted). This drew howls of protest from the monks of the
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), with its parliamentary leader,
Athuraliye Rathana Thero, using parliament to hurl abuse at
the judgement. Trincomalee continues to simmer, shunned by
tourists, and the Buddha statue now enjoys a round-the-clock
police guard at public expense.
For their part, Trincomalee's Muslims
have watched this unfolding drama with bemusement, unable to
comprehend how a statue cast in cement and painted over with
Dulux could cause such a stir. Islam very sensibly prohibits
any association whatsoever between its followers and graven
images, having spotted many centuries ago that no sensible
person could conceivably worship objects made by men. The late
Soma Thera maintained much the same philosophy and was highly
thought of in consequence. One wonders why his disciples are
so quiet now, and is led to suspect that much of the public
show of grief following his death was entirely unrelated to
his very enlightened teaching.
Thankfully, apart from the JHU's
extremists, the rest of the Buddhist clergy has maintained a
stoic and somewhat embarrassed silence on the goings on in
Trincomalee. One is at a loss to figure where in the dhamma it
says that graven images of the Buddha should be cast or
venerated, or for that matter, defended through the hurling of
grenades. All very unpleasant and calculated to cast Buddhists
and Buddhism in a bad light.
The quandary in which we find ourselves
is largely the result of successive generations of political
leaders not having the spine to mark a clear separation
between religion and the state. In an act of supreme folly,
J.R. Jayewardene, five-sixths majority and all, could not
restrain himself from giving Buddhism the 'foremost place' in
the 1978 Constitution of the Second Republic. In a truly
secular state there would be no difficulty in resolving the
Trincomalee issue: there simply cannot be a religious edifice
on public property. And this is not such a difficult thing to
achieve, as India's secular constitution has demonstrated in
the course of 58 years of independence.
The mixing of religion in the affairs
of state is not unique to Sri Lanka. Even the United States
has sunk to pretty low depths, with some states earlier this
year deciding to outlaw the teaching of evolution in schools,
opting instead for the doctrine that God created the universe
in seven days. It is not a far step from there to believing
that God's chosen people are the Jews, and that Arabs have no
place in a civilised universe.
Sadly, the practice of most religions
is rarely consistent with the preaching. Muslims have been
slow to condemn the violence perpetrated by Al Qaeda in the
name of Islam. The fighting in Northern Ireland between
Protestants and Catholics goes on with barely a rebuke from
the heads of either religion. Jews continue indiscriminately
to slaughter Palestinians and forcibly colonise their lands.
Hindus and Muslims have engaged in bloody conflict over
whether it is Allah or Rama who hovers over the Ayodhya site
in Uttar Pradesh. And even as the global population passes the
six billion mark and keeps rising, the Vatican holds out
against birth control and discriminates against women.
Given the turmoil religions of all
flavours have bestowed on mankind, it is difficult not to
conclude that Christopher Marlowe was right. "I count
religion but a childish toy," he wrote, "and hold
there is no sin but ignorance." The abuse of religion has
been such that it is doubtful indeed whether it has had a
positive influence of any kind on humanity. The electricity
crisis Sri Lanka is presently suffering is largely the doing
of the Catholic Church, which has steadfastly resisted the
building of a coal-fired power plant at Norochcholai, the most
economical site at which this could be done.
Even evangelical Christianity, that is
growing extremely rapidly, is hard to admire given the
five-star lifestyles of many of its adherents. One has only to
drive past the Russian Centre on Independence Avenue on a
Sunday morning to admire the Alfa Romeos, Mercedes Benzes and
Volvos of the congregation of the Four Square Church
worshiping within. It seems they have not read the gospel,
Matthew 19:24 which maintains that, "It is easier for a
camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to
enter the kingdom of God." The Sai Baba Ashram on Barnes
Place and Captain's Garden Kovil are little different when it
comes to the glitz of the wealthy seeking divine intervention
to make even more money.
So long as Sri Lanka gives religion any
kind of place in the workings of state, there can be little
benefit either to the people or to the religions themselves.
One has only to look at the curious conduct of the Malwatte
Mahanayake recently, in instigating his priests to stage a
hunger strike on the premises of the Dalada Maligawa, an
action specifically prohibited by the dhamma. And that is to
say nothing of the disgraceful bickering that has gone on with
regard to the appointment of the Diyawadana Nilame, which has
everything to do with politics and high-caste kinsmanship than
with the principles of Buddhism.
It is not very often that The Sunday
Leader finds itself singing off the same sheet as the JVP, but
on this issue we find it difficult not to take our hat off to
Karl Marx, who put it in a nutshell: "Die religion ist
das Opium des Volkes." Dr. Marx never spoke a truer word.