By ROHANA R. WASALA
Feisal Mansoor (‘Muslims and ban on cattle slaughter’/The Island/October 9, 2020) opens his piece with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, obviously taken from the web: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” However, there is some doubt about the authenticity of that alleged Gandhi quote, because it is not traceable to his writings or his speeches according to quote-researchers; besides, he was usually better known for his great concern for the weak members of human society than for animals. But even if someone just imagined it, there’s no harm done, for the expression of concern for animal welfare attributed to Gandhi, can be easily supported by what we know about him as a champion of non-violence. But the problem here is this: Whether genuine or fake, the Gandhi quote has little or no relevance to the truth that FM’s arbitrary opinions about Sri Lanka’s ‘ancient culture’ misrepresent or conceal, in favour of something else. He seems to completely ignore the millennia long recorded history of the island, which is almost entirely coterminous with its established Buddhist religious culture and is inseparable from it. (Incidentally, the spirit of secularism and democracy that it encourages in governance is a distinctive feature of the country’s majority Buddhist culture; but this is something difficult for most believers of other religions and Sri Lanka-baiters to understand or appreciate.) The greatness of our culture is that it is absolutely tolerant and accommodating towards minority cultures, subject to the implicit legitimate condition that they don’t try to make undue inroads into its space or to subvert it in other ways. To me it looks like FM’s statements are meant to distort, rubbish, and obviate, if possible, Sri Lanka’s ancient Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage. Is the Gandhi quote meant to imply that our nation has no claim to greatness, and that our treatment of animals falls short of required moral standards observed in civilized countries?
Having said that, it must be stated with emphasis that it is perfectly alright for FM to try to share his personal convictions with others. That is his right as a free citizen. I am enjoying here the same right to articulate my reaction as a Sri Lankan to his views about the ancient history and culture of our beloved Motherland.
First of all, let’s be clear about this: At the very inauguration (i.e., in official terms) of the Buddha Sasana in the island of Lanka, Buddhist missionary Arhant Mahinda Thera admonished the monarch of the land king Devanampiya Tissa in 236 BCE (2256 years ago) thus as recorded in the Mahavamsa (Chapter XIV):
“O great king, the beasts that roam the forest and the birds that fly the skies have the same right to this land as you. The land belongs to the people and to all other living things, and you are not its owner but only its guardian.”
Isn’t this considerably before today’s animal rights protectors, animal ‘status’ guarantors, animal welfare standard maintainers, and various other ‘a fair deal for animals’ worriers, represented in organizations that annually celebrate the World Wildlife Day (March 3), World Animal Day (October 4), etc., at some cost, started talking about the subject?
Compassionate treatment of all sentient beings is an ideal that people brought up in our culture, take for granted. Of course, there are instances where the ideal is observed in the breach. That is human nature. A whole society should not be judged on the basis of the behaviour of a few individuals, who could themselves be victims of circumstances.
FM’s first paragraph is an attempted fusion of the Ravana myth and his religious beliefs, to the exclusion of the historically factual Buddhist element. That Ravana flew his ‘dandu monara yanaya’ (wooden peacock aircraft) and abducted Seetha from what is now called India, is a story. Not even children take that as proven history, but it is a wonderful story, wherever or whenever it originated. Talking monkeys, animal fortune tellers, and other human personality attributed birds and beasts are common in literature in all cultures. The stories that compose our Jataka Potha are shared property in various North Indian literary traditions. The Sanskrit ‘Panchatantra’ from India, interweaves five skeins of moral traditions into a single text composed of stories in which so many animals feature, invested with human qualities. We have a number of talking, philosophising, admonishing birds in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
FM writes: “As Creation is the supreme force in the universe, the beneficence of life and its comprehension through love, is to facilitate as many expressions of life as possible.” That belief is not shared by the predominant religious culture of our country, but is not targetadly criticised or attacked so as to hurt others’ religious beliefs or sentiments. There is evidence that our ancestors ‘worshipped’ the sun as the source of all life, especially plant life, hence important for agriculture. If they deified the sun, it was very meaningful. That ancient religious tradition survives today in the secular Surya Mangalyaya or the Sinhala Aluth Avurudda, held in the month of Bak (Felix/Lucky) in the Sinhala calendar. The ignorant insensitive British colonial authorities arbitrarily renamed it Sinhala Hindu New Year for their own purposes. Tamils and Sinhalese can and do live peaceably together, while observing their separate culturally distinctive festivals. Whether our ancestors called themselves Aryans because they were sun worshippers is highly improbable. Aryans were a white skinned race.The Sinhalese are not. It is not impossible that the Swastika – a sign that symbolizes the Sun was later appropriated by those white people, including Adolf Hitler. The legendary Vijaya of the Mahavamsa could have descended from such a tribe, but that origin story is not accepted today. Newly available archaeological evidence provides proof that our ancestors were a civilised a people (with their pure dark skin) even during the time of the Buddha, and that there were lay Buddhists and Buddhist monks before the arrival of Arahat Mahinda; whose coming appears to have been the result of an official diplomatic mission; he and his retinue were, most probably, royal emissaries from Emperor Asoka’s court as much as Buddhist missionaries. (Read between the lines, the Mahavamsa passages support this impression.)
FM’s reference to Aldous Huxley needs a comment. In the Maha Parinibbana Sutta, the Buddha tells the monks: ‘Atta dipa viharatha’ – ‘Be islands unto yourselves’, meaning you are your own saviour, that is, ‘Realise Nibbanic Bliss, put an end to samsaric suffering, through your own effort’ (which is not beyond you, if you are diligent enough). Writer and brilliant intellectual Aldous Huxley might have independently arrived at this island metaphor to describe his own illusion of self, elusive self-identity. The contemplative W.B. Yeats, himself no mean intellectual, expressed it as ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ It is also possible that both of them came across this idea in Buddhist literature.
Apparently, FM mistakes this profound idea for selfish self-absorption. In his confusion, he imports the phrase ‘enlightened self-interest’ that Adam Smith (considered the ‘father of modern economics’) coined to express his idea that by pursuing one’s own economic benefit one ultimately contributes to the good of others as well, without probably intending to do so. (But it can be thought that he tried to elaborate it as a morally acceptable concept, rather than as a coldly amoral economic one.) However, that is something very different from the Buddhist idea of working for the benefit and wellbeing of others without expecting a reward, generosity or altruism.
FM has written:
“As such, enlightened self-interest is the only personal inquiry we can make, with the all- important caveat that in our self-discovery we may not interfere with anything else’s self-discovery.”
He may be seen as giving idiosyncratic twists to the terms ‘enlightened self-interest’ and ‘self-discovery’, which are actually technical terms in their respective characteristic contexts. FM also makes a confusing verbal medley out of words like ahimsa, Dhamma, and Mahasammata. These are words charged with meaning and emotion for Buddhists. ‘Mahasammata’ (the Great Elect/the Universally Chosen One/The People’s Choice) occurs in Chapter II of the Mahavamsa as the earliest genealogical ancestor of the Buddha (and humankind, probably) who lived countless aeons ago. For Sinhalese Buddhists ‘Mahasammata’ is not a historical figure; he is the legendary first king on earth. In the Agganna Sutta (On Knowledge of Beginnings) the Buddha mentions Mahasammata as the first ruler who was appointed, based on his handsome appearance and moral strength, by common consent, to rule over the group of rice growers that was the loosely formed human society then. He was tasked to prevent stealing, to punish the miscreants by banishing, etc. Mahasammata was given a share of the rice crop as payment for his service. Actually, the Agganna Sutta can be interpreted as a scientific account of an alternately expanding and contracting universe, and a gradually evolving earth; and much later anatomically modern humans and organized human societies emerging on earth. There is no talk of a creator or creation, which FM takes for granted. Dharma is what the Buddha preached. Ahimsa is the ideal of nonviolence that is common to most Indian religions, including principally, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
Next, FM quotes two passages from the book ‘Portuguese Encounters with Sri Lanka and the Maldives’ edited by C.R. de Silva, Ashgate, 2009, to assert “that there was no slaughter of cattle in Lanka prior to colonisation”. It is ridiculous in this trivial context to quote from an eminent historian like the professor mentioned. These encounters took place in the 16th to 17th centuries. The book is a scholarly collection of writings taken from Portuguese histories and archives in translation combined with those from local sources. Publishers say: “These documents contribute to the growing understanding that different groups of European colonizers – missionaries, traders and soldiers – had conflicting motivations and objectives. Scholars have also begun to emphasize that the colonized were not mere victims but had their own agendas and that they occasionally successfully manipulated colonial powers.” (I took this extract from Google.com- RRW)
So, the book shows that the natives of these countries matched those invading European interlopers bent on ‘temporal and spiritual conquest’ in their cunning and countervailing skills. They were not half-civilized savages. By the way, I don’t think FM found himself nodding in agreement when reading sentences like the following written by an ignorant Portuguese scribe:
“… In this country there are many false beliefs sown by the devil, and to eradicate them there is a need for much time and trouble…..” (This must be a reference to local Buddhist and Hindu religious beliefs of the time; but the colonizers were too uneducated and uncultured to understand that Buddhism and Hinduism are not ‘religions’ in their sense of the term, and that religion in the colonizers’ sense was, as it still is, a facile superstition to Buddhists. – RRW)
“They (some native people who didn’t kill even the meanest of creatures) do not eat bread, however hungry or needy they might be. Their food is made up of the leaves of a certain creeper (betel leaves) that climbs other trees like ivy. These leaves are smeared with the same kind of lime that they use for whitewashing their houses…”
“There is another class of people that eats fowl and wild boar and deer, but does not eat the flesh of cows, since they believe their souls enter into cows after death; they will never kill a cow and eat its flesh…”
It looks like FM has missed this book: ‘A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations: The Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka’ by Susantha Goonatilake, 2010. It gives a clear assessment of the effects of the Portuguese colonial presence in our country, which was actually ahead of those European invaders in terms of human civilization. The Portuguese went to Sri Lanka in compliance with a papal bull.
FM makes extremely fallacious claims like the following about his fictitious ‘Lanka of Mahasammata’:
“A vocational caste system handed down secrets to successive generations, in a system where one’s knowledge was one’s wealth, with the Divine as the Supreme Master of one’s craft, one performs one’s duty with an aim to perfection in union of mind and spirit so each attempt brought one closer to the Ultimate Prize.” (Divine as the Supreme Master of one’s craft, Ultimate Prize, What are these?)
“In a land ruled by the Unseen King, in both metaphor and practise, the King embodies Mahasammata and sets the standard for the people”. (There was no Mahasammata in our country’s history. I explained the ‘Mahasammata’ concept above. Who is this Unseen King, FM? Surely a figment of your imagination?)
“The people know that if they live in dhamma, Dhamma would protect them, and the land would be safe”. (This is a misinterpretation of the piece of wisdom which runs in Pali: ‘dhammo have rakkati dhammacarim’ ‘The Dhamma protects the one who lives by the Dhamma’. There’s no protective magic or divine intervention here. But don’t take it literally. You may be sure you live according to the Dhamma. But be mindful enough not to stand in front of an oncoming train.)
The rest of FM’s article makes even less sense. From this point onwards, I fail to find anything in FM’s article worth talking about. The next to nothing he has to say about the subject proposed in his title is: ” I believe that as a Sri Lankan Muslim, it is incumbent on me to respect the mores of my compatriots and to live in a way that will lead to greater social cohesion, amity and unity of purpose…” That is a harmless thought, but I for one do not believe that pre-colonial Sri Lanka was paradise on earth. Besides, that sentiment runs in the face of what FM has been trying to prove to the very end.