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The Curse of Intolerance

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi desires that all religions should reside everywhere….”
Ashokan Rock Edict 7

( July 12, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The attack on Buddha Gaya is an outrage.

When the religious of the different religions refuse to coexist, when they accrue unto themselves the exclusive ownership of spiritual truths or geographic spaces, when rulers see in religions (and in the credulous religious) a means to temporal-power, societal-violence proliferates, wars ensue and tragedy strikes.

Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists proclaim Sri Lanka to be a Sinhala-Buddhist land, because a majority of its people are Sinhala-Buddhists1. Based on this majoritarian-logic, they preach religious intolerance, rail against Christians, Muslims and Hindus and attack churches, mosques and kovils.

All religious venerate their places of worship. All religious experience sorrow and anger when their places of worship are attacked. The horror a Buddhists feel when a temple is attacked is the same horror a Christian feels when a church is attacked, a Muslim feels when a mosque is attacked and a Hindu feels when a kovil is attacked. Religious violence does not generate peace; religious violence begets more religious violence. A country which is caught in that bloody-vortex will become a living hell. That was the fate of Europe during its religious conflicts/wars; that is fate of countries like Pakistan and Iraq today.

When you attack the edifices of other religions you provide extremists of those religions with an excuse to attack yours. If Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics continue their rampage against churches, kovils and mosques in Sri Lanka, they have only themselves to blame if Christian/Hindu/Islamic fanatics attack Buddhist historical and religious sites elsewhere in the world.

What if the world accepts the exclusionary and intolerant logic of the Sinhala-Buddhists Supremacists, that a country is the sole property of the majority religion? By that logic, India is a Hindu country (and Indian government has no duty to protect the Maha Bodhi). The Hindus are the ‘real owners’ of India and as such have an inalienable right to accept or reject the rights of other communities and permit or destroy the sites of other religions.

What if such a Hindutva-India decides that this or that Buddhist historical site must be demolished because some Hindus demand it?

Can the BBS protect Sanchi and Ajanta in Hindu-majority India? Can the JHU safeguard Kapilawastu and Lumbini in Hindu-majority Nepal? Can the Rajapaksas save Borobudur in Muslim-majority Indonesia? What about the Buddhist temples dotting lands in which the majority religion is not Buddhism, from Christian-majority US, Europe and Australia to Islamic-majority Malaysia and the Middle East2? How can Buddhist historical and religious sites be protected if countries of the world embrace the BBS/JHU/Sinhala Ravaya logic and their leaders adopt Rajapaksa-practices?

There are Theravada Buddhist temples in Japan where Theravada Buddhists are in a minority. Would Lankan monks allow Mahayana Buddhists the right they claim for themselves from New York to Melbourne, from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur – that of propagating their own brand of Buddhism and building their own type of temples?

If Christians, Hindus or Muslims do not have a right to build their own religious edifices in Sri Lanka because they are ‘newcomers/non-owners’, what justification is there for building a Buddhist temple in London or San Francisco?

The BBS wants the Indian army to follow the example of the ‘Sinhala army’3. If the Indian army were to heed this advice, it will aid and abet Hindu extremists, build kovils all over India and not lift a finger to protect Buddhist sites.

If the entire world follows the logic of the BBS (which is also the logic of Wahabism, Hindutva and some Christian and Jewish fundamentalists), there will be Theravada temples only in five countries: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Kampuchea, Laos and Thailand. Buddhism in general and Theravada Buddhism in particular have been able to establish a global presence because most non-Buddhists abhor religious fundamentalism, most non-Theravada Buddhists do not regard Theravada Buddhists as enemies and most world leaders are more intelligent than the Rajapaksas.

Until now, Buddhist places of worship were not targeted by any fanatic of any religion, because of Buddhism’s non-violent and moderate image. The wanton destruction of the Bamiyan statues by the Taliban stemmed not from anti-Buddhism but from a general hatred of anything considered ‘idols’ (Taliban also attacks Shia shrines; the Saudis are destroying innumerable Islamic religious and historical sites for the same reason).

But if the Wirathu-Buddhists of Myanmar and the BBS-Buddhists of Sri Lanka continue their campaign of hatred, Buddhist historical and religious sites will become the targets of fanatics all over the world.

The attack on Bodh Gaya is a wake up call; Lankan Buddhists must decide whether they are going to allow a bunch of power-hungry politicians and hate-filled monks to distort and implode Buddhism for their personal purposes.

Learning from the Buddha

According to the Kalama Sutta, when the Buddha arrived in Kesaputta, the Kalamas told him, “There are monks and Brahmins venerable sir, who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile and pull to pieces….”4. Clearly there were BBS-types even during the time of the Buddha. And in Buddha’s reply to the Kalamas, there is one of the best refutations of religious-hatred: “What do you think Kalamas? Does hate appear in a man for his benefit or harm?.... Kalamas, being given to hate, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by hate, this man takes life, steals, commits adultery and tell lies; he prompts another too, to do likewise…”5

One of the first lessons in the importance and necessity of religious tolerance was given by none other than Emperor Ashoka. A convert to Buddhism (we would all be pagans or animists, had conversion been regulated out-of-existence), he offered patronage and protection to every religion/sect in his vast empire. He explained why religious tolerance is both good ethics and good politics: “…there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is in not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religions of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honour other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought ‘Let me glorify my own religion’ only harms his own religion….”6

Religious intolerance is a double-edged sword. If the BBS-types become dominant in Sri Lanka, life will become as oppressive and obscurantist as in Saudi Arabia or Taliban-ruled Afghanistan – even for Sinhala-Buddhists. They will, in accordance with their limited knowledge, mean intelligence and narrow vision, decide what sort of conduct, music, cuisine, dress, art, science, education, health and living is acceptable or not. They will intrude into every home, interfere with every family and dictate to every man, woman and child. They will turn Buddhism into its antithesis and Sri Lanka into a land of ignorance, bigotry and violent-hatred.

1 The Mahawasma story about Buddha’s bequest is a myth made up by a monk, about 800 years after the Great Extinguishing.
2 The Theravada Buddhist sites in the Middle East include the Bahrain Meditation Centre, the Bahrain Goneka Vipassana and the Dubai Meditation Centre. There are many other Buddhist sites belonging to the Non-Theravada traditions.
3 http://www.srilankamirror.lk/news/8855-take-examples-from-sinhala-army-bbs-calls-india
4 http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.soma.html. The second solace of the disciples of the Noble Ones in the Kalama Sutta is suitable for an atheist/humanist manifesto: “Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound and happy, I keep myself”
5 Ibid
6 Rock Edict 12


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