Recently, when three French tourists were in the media and the dock for taking photos that had them kissing and posing with a statue of the Buddha at the Ambekke Temple in Kandy, Udaya Gammanpila, the spokesman of the blithely racist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) noted, “Sri Lankans consider this statue to be sacred. They desecrated it. This is uncivilised behaviour” and went on to note that “We condemn this action of the three French tourists and urge Westerners to please respect our culture and act decently”.
The photos taken by the tourists are easily available online. The British FCO has already revised its travel advisory to Sri Lanka, quite correctly noting that “The mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence and tourists have been convicted for posing for such photos”. Your columnist submits that no congregation, no place of worship, no religious deity or God is above ridicule and critique. Yet tourists who come from cultures that celebrate the freedom to write and rally against organised religion may naively devalue the power of religious symbols and places of worship in a country like ours. It is unlikely that Dawkins or even Hitchens when alive, who with every sinew and syllable stood against blind faith over reason, would have encouraged photo-ops with the Pope in a bikini, or going in the nude to Mecca. Kissing the Buddha in a country so strongly and globally associated with Buddhism is wrong – at best incredibly naïve, at worst insufferably dismissive of local sensibilities.
That said, Sri Lanka’s growing saffron mentality has also led to a sickening national hypocrisy. Around two years ago, a pop star’s visit and concert was cancelled because of a music video of his that featured, for all of two or three seconds, a bikini clad woman dancing in front of a barely distinguishable Buddha in the background. Some years before, the country banned the import of Buddha Bar CD’s. In the interim, there have been sporadic news stories, especially in Sinhala websites, with images of the Buddha on the t-shirts of foreigners, for example, as evidence of their depravity and degeneracy. That the government seeks to increase tourist inflows, since inconvenient to this argument, is never mentioned. Everything detrimental to Buddhism is portrayed to stem from a foreign influence. Never once does the critique extend to the behaviour of self-styled Buddhists themselves, and Sri Lanka’s own monks. The same people incensed by the behaviour French tourists are almost completely silent over the violence in Dambulla in late April, led not by tourists, but by Sri Lanka’s own Buddhist clergy and mobs organised in the name of Buddhism. The same JHU that rightfully calls the photos by the French uncivilised is revealingly silent over the reprehensible behaviour led and condoned by the Chief Prelate of Dambulla, his racist comments against residents of the area and the desecration of a place of worship by Muslims by monks who went on to publicly disrobe in front of it, all indelibly captured in the media. In fact, despite overwhelming video and photographic content, the same Police who swiftly prosecuted the French tourists are, to date, unable and unwilling to arrest or hold accountable a single person leading or in the mob in Dambulla. The same Buddhist monks and avowedly Buddhist politicians who express their condemnation of the recent photos by the French, went on to chant pirith and bless the Rajapaksa’s manic myrmidon Mervyn Silva, who on the grounds of a leading temple openly called for the killing and maiming of traitors earlier this year, and not for the first time.
The British FCO’s travel advisory got it wrong. If a tourist really wants to offend the Dhamma and the Buddha and get away with it with complete impunity, he or she should simply shave their heads and don a saffron cloth. Armed thus, any behaviour goes. And if that sounds offensive and absurd, it’s no more so than Sri Lanka’s mainstream psyche. All religions, in any country including ours, must remain personal, where it means and matters the most, whether genuflection, meditation or affection is anchored to a God, the Dhamma, Apple, Nicki Minaj or opium. Any institutionalised projection or openly preferred choice, especially when supported by the State, risks revisiting history replete with the most heinous of violence against non-believers by the faithful, and stoking religious intolerance.
We are fashionably aghast at the French. Given the events of 2012 alone, we really should be more ashamed at ourselves.
Published in The Nation newspaper in print, 26 August 2012.