Sandakada pahana (Moonstone) and inculturation

| by Dr Leonard Pinto

( July 16, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) During the last few weeks the Sandakada pahanas (Moonstones) in a couple of churches in Kalutara District came under attack from Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist militant organisation led by Buddhist monks. They claimed that Sandakada pahana (Moonstone) is a Buddhist symbol found at the entrance to Buddhist temples, and therefore should not adorn the foot of any Catholic statues or church doorsteps. The Catholic priest humbly accepted the claim of the intimidating and abusing Buddhist monks that this is a Buddhist symbol, in order to avoid confrontation. But, a few serious questions are worth reviewing.

(1) Is Sandakada pahana Buddhist symbol or an artifact of archaeology? Certainly it is not a direct Buddhist symbol as a Buddha statue, Buddha footprints or Sacred Bo leaves. Sandakada pahana can be considered as a remote Buddhist symbol, similar to ‘swastika’ and lotus, where the symbolism is a hypothetical assumption. S. Paranawithana considered it to be a Buddhist symbol depicting passage to nirvana through the cycles in samsara, while D. Devendra considered it to be an ancient decorative doormat. The fact is that during the Anuradhapura period it was found at the entrance to king Mahasena’s palace and during the Polonnaruwa period it was found at the entrance to king Parakramabahu’s council chambers. Surely, palace and council chambers are not Buddhist temples. W.I. Siriweera in his History of Sri Lanka (2004) stated that the tradition of Anuradhapura period of placing Sandakada pahanas at entrances to Buddhist temples changed, and they were placed at the entrances of other buildings extensively in the Polonnaruwa period. The original Sandakada pahanas of Anuradhapura period contained rows of swans, elephants, lions, horses and bulls with liyawel and a lotus. The Hindu influence in the Polonnaruwa removed bull, a Hindu god from the Sandakada pahana. So, a Sandakada pahana with bulls cannot be considered as a Buddhist symbol. Recently a 8 foot, 1 ton Sandakada pahana from a former planter’s garden in Sri Lanka was priced at £50,000 in an auction at Exeter, Devon U.K.

(2) If precedence is given to this interpretation of the clause in the Constitution that “Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana”, then next time another group would ask for the removal of lotus, Bo leaf shape, pagoda shape etc. from Christian architecture (including Tewatte Basilica, Peradeniya University chapel, etc) and forbid the use of coconut flower -pol mal, coconut branches - gokkala or oil lamps and Kandyan dancers in Christian liturgy.

(3) The most serious issue is the role of Police and Court of Law in conflict resolution. Who gave the authority to Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya and Sinhala Ravaya to take law into their hands and intimidate priests of other religions or other citizens? Is the government turning a blind eye and failing in its responsibility of protecting human rights of all citizens through its democratic institutions? It is common knowledge that these activities have been carried out with the knowledge of the Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, the brother of the president.

Sandakada pahanas came to these churches as a result of the concept of Inculturation vitalised after Vatican II. Gaudium et spes (1965), the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, states “thus the ability to express Christ's message in its own way is developed in each nation, and at the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people. To promote such exchange, especially in our days, the Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage” (Clause 44).

"Thence it follows that human culture has necessarily a historical and social aspect and the word "culture" also often assumes a sociological and ethnological sense. According to this sense we speak of a plurality of cultures. Different styles of life and multiple scales of values arise from the diverse manner of using things... It is also in this way that there is formed the definite, historical milieu which enfolds the man of every nation and age and from which he draws the values, which permit him to promote civilisation" (Clause 53). On the other hand Christian values are not bound to a single culture, as it crossed the barriers of Israel, to Asia Minor, to Italy, Europe, New world and the East. "Since culture, when pure, reveals and strengthens the nature of man, the Christian impregnation presupposes the surpassing of all historicism and relativism in the conception of what is human…Cultures must also be purified and restored in Christ" (Faith & Inculturation 1988, International Theological Commission).

There is a need to educate the general public, particularly the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka on the meaning of inculturation through media. Some Buddhist writers think that Christians are stealing parts of Buddhist culture (e.g. terms Daham pasala, Bakthi gee, and symbols Sandakada pahana etc.) Others think that Catholics have a sneaky program of deceiving Buddhists with ‘cultural carrots’ to attract them to Catholicism. Both these are wrong. What Christians want to do is to practice their religion in the context of Sri Lanka, and be close to their non-Christian brethren. Unfortunately the response from the extremists has been unBuddhist in thought (i.e. samma sankappa) and action (metta, karuna, mudita and upeksha). It is evident that underneath these activities is an organised program to exclude, intimidate and assign second-class citizenship to all minorities. It appears as if, the State is using Buddhist organisations and Buddhist monks to deliver the agenda covertly, as the police, court of law and those responsible for governing are lethargic about the issue.