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The Next Pandora’s Box

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Lies are believed amongst every race;
And was any race ever the sole possessor of Truth?”
Abdallah al-Mar’arri (973-1057)1

( August 22, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When Martin Wickremesinghe’s Bhavatharanaya was first published, some Sinhala-Buddhists (lay and ordained) wanted it banned for ‘insulting’ the Buddha.

There are American Evangelicals who think that Harry Potter books should be prohibited for promoting anti-Christian values.

The BJP student union thrashed the Head of the History Department at Delhi University for including a critical essay on Ramayana by AK Ramanujan2 in the BA (Hons) curriculum; they said the essay offended Hindu sensibilities.

A group of Islamist lawyers in Egypt tried to get the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights banned for promoting ‘sin’3.

Imagine a country where the fundamentalists of all four faiths are allowed by the state to ban any book they consider offensive to their various religions. Imagine a country where bigoted monks/clerics have a monopoly on deciding what the people should read and write, see and hear, accept and enjoy.

If the latest Rajapaksa scheme bears fruit, Sri Lanka will become that country.

In 1559, Pope Paul IV published the first List of Prohibited Books (the Pauline Index) with over 538 authors on it. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was continuously renewed, until it was abolished in 1966, as part of the Vatican II4.

Now Sri Lanka’s Ruling Siblings are planning to introduce their own Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Rajapaksa Index promises to be a far more restrictive document than even the Pauline Index, because it proposes to include any and every publication considered offensive by Sri Lanka’s four major religions. “The Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs Ministry is to introduce a new law seeking action against publications, either in print or online, that defames the original teachings and traditions of the major religions, officials said”5. A bill to establish a ‘Buddhist Publications Regulatory Board’ is already with the AG. Once that bill is through, “another law will be introduced to deal with publications that are contrary to the original teachings of other religions”6.

In his intervention at the 2012 UN Conference on Culture of Peace and Non-violence, Wole Soyinka warned, “…the science fiction archetype of the mad scientist who craves to dominate the world has been replaced by the mad cleric who can only conceive of the world in his own image”7. Sri Lanka is to do one better. Here three power-obsessed Siblings are planning to further their dynastic project by giving free rein to ‘mad clerics’ of every faith. The resultant ‘religious-correctness’ will be used to strengthen autocracy by permeating society with anti-democratic values and an intolerant ethos.

Despots, across the world and throughout history, have tried to infantilise their people. When a leader becomes not the First Citizen but the all-knowing, all-seeing Father of the nation, the people are automatically transformed from adults into children. In a dictator’s world, he is the sole adult; everyone else is a minor. As the nation’s patriarch, he has the right and the responsibility to decide what his ‘children’ should be allowed to read/write/speak/see/hear/think, to ensure that they are not morally corrupted and politically led astray. The despot’s world is a dark version of Neverland where the people rot in an eternal political-childhood.

Fundamentalist religion can be particularly useful in effecting this infantilising of a nation.

So if the Rajapaksas have their index, they will be able to take another giant leap towards the Sri Lanka of their dreams, a place where critical analysis is criminalised, critical faculties are paralysed and dissent is sinful; an ‘Obedient Land’ peopled by ‘Good Subjects’, juvenile-adults habituated into seeing, hearing and believing whatever they are told to, by their rulers.

Mind-Control and Political Power

The Pauline Index was partly a response two historical events – the Protestant Reformation and the introduction of the printing press. It was an attempt by an embattled papacy to silence dissent and regain societal and psychological control.

As the specific inclusion of the internet indicates, the proposed introduction of religious-censorship is an inalienable component of the larger Rajapaksa project to control and shape information flows to Lankans. The private media are largely tamed; the internet is the final frontier in the Rajapaksa journey towards total familial rule. Once the Rajapaksa Index becomes the law, the Siblings will be able to establish total control over the actual and virtual mediascape, behind a banner of piety and religious-correctness.

Religion and heresy are symbiotic twins. It is this unbreakable nexus which creates religious schisms. So Buddhism is Theravada-Buddhism and Mahayana-Buddhism; Christianity is Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox; Islam is Sunni and Shia. Plus many sub-sects. These schisms happened because there is no agreement about what the ‘original teachings and traditions’ of a religion are, amongst the faithful. It is due to these irreconcilably different interpretations of the same religion that the faithful kill/persecute others of their own faith.

Will the Buddhist Religious-Police (the Buddhist Publications Regulatory Board) decide that Sinhala-Buddhists must not have access to some/all non-Theravada Buddhist texts? That would be easier to implement because the non-Theravada strands were suppressed when King Parakramabahu I forced Abhayagiriya and Jenthavanaya to submit to the authority of the Mahaviharaya in 1165. According W Karu Peiris, former Programme Officer of National Heritage Commission, “By the 7th Century AD Abhayagiriya complex consisted of four ‘MULAS’ or institutions of education…. Abhayagiriya developed into a well-organised non-orthodox religious education centre which had relations with foreign countries…. The Abhayagiriya students studied both Mahayana and Theravada doctrines….”8 The suppression of non-Theravada strands of Buddhism was so complete, that the myth that Lanka was, is and will always be the sole property of Theravada-Buddhism by the wish of the Buddha and the agency of the Gods became and remains the dominant ‘truth’.

The Lankan Theravadists managed to achieve the dream of every religious fundamentalist – impose their version on their land and eradicate all alternative interpretations. The various Christian and Muslim sects were not so successful9. Lanka has Catholic and non-Catholic Christians and Sunni and Shia Muslims. So how will the composition of Christian/Islamic ‘Publications Regulatory Board’ be determined? Who will decide whose version of Christianity or Islam represents the “original teachings and traditions”? Who will join the Rajapaksa Index, Martin Luther or Ignatius of Loyola? What will happen when Sunnis demand the ban of Shia books and vice versa? And the fundamentalists insist that various works of literature/philosophy/science they consider anti-religious must be forbidden?

The Rajapaksa Index will allow the Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara types of every religion to peddle their own noxious, intolerant views without fear of contradiction. Freedom of expression will be dead. It will also add one more layer of bloody intolerance to an already violence-ridden land, by causing an explosion of intra-religious conflicts. .

Is it that the Rajapaksas are unaware of the deadly nature of their latest madness? Or are they deliberately planning to ignite intra-religious conflicts (just as they are igniting inter-religious conflicts)? If the fear of ethno-religious ‘Other’ preoccupies the Sinhala-Buddhist mind and heresy obsesses the Christian/Muslim/Hindu mind, Lankans will be too busy attacking each other to challenge Rajapaksa rule.

Is the planned introduction of religious censorship yet another measure of divide and rule, Rajapaksa-style?

1 Quoted in Doubt: A History by Jennifer Hecht. Al-Ma’arri was an Arabic poet well known for his religious skepticism.
2 Three Hundred Ramayans: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.
3 Fortunately Egyptian intellectuals successfully fought against this inanely bigoted demand http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2010/05/05/107772.html
4 Even in the 1960’s the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency was able to dictate to Hollywood about what was ‘morally’ acceptable and what was not. The Legion of Decency of course said/did nothing about the rampant clerical child abuse.
5 http://www.dailymirror.lk/news/33892-new-law-to-prohibit-publications-defamatory-of-the-major-religions.html
6 Ibid
7 http://saharareporters.com/report/religion-against-humanity-wole-soyinka
8 “The higher ordination of Buddhist nuns in China was done by nuns of Abhayagiriya…. In 8th Century AD there was a branch of Abhayagiriya in Java, built by Sinhala monks of the Abhayagiriya complex. The King of Kashmir and his family came to Abhayagiriya and learned Buddhism….” http://www.lankayoursnmine.com/NTGL/PDF/Exam%20Paper%20I/Archaeological%20Monuments/Mr.Karu%20Peiris%20-%20Monument%20-%20Abhayagiri%20Vihara%20complex.pdf.
In his introduction to Rapial Tennakoon’s Wavuluwa (The Narrative of the Bat), Munidasa Kumartunga argues that the victory of the Theravada tradition had a devastating effect on the creative arts and capacities of ancient Lanka: “Due to the insanities of those who developed erroneous notions of the Philosophy (i.e. Buddhism – TG) arts and music left our land. The great books of Abhayagiriya and Jethawana traditions were burnt to make room for the desiccated preachings of Mahavihara. The erotic poetic gems of Sakdamala and Asakdamala went into hiding, probably because they felt ashamed of the obscenities contained in some religious tomes” (p.40; translation mine).
9 There are non-Wahabi Muslims even in Saudi Arabia, that archetype of religious fundamentalism and intolerance.