June 11, 2007

Tantum religio

In his thought-provoking book Revenge and Reconciliation, Rajmohan Gandhi examines (among other things) the roots of Sri Lanka's endless tragic bloodletting. He quotes the scholar Gananath Obeyesekere, who believes it is the fault of a deliberate campaign over many decades to give political prominence to Sinhalas and their religion, over other people in that country. He particularly blames the early 20th Century Buddhist, Anagarika Dharmapala, for spurring on this campaign. Obeyesekere writes that in turning Buddhism into a political weapon, Dharmapala -
    reaffirmed the Buddhist identity, treating Christians and non-Sinhalas as alien outsiders. ... [He] identified non-Sinhala[s] ... for attack: the Muslims, Borah merchants and especially the Tamils, whom he referred to as 'hadi demalu', filthy Tamils ... [All this laid bare] the dark underside of Buddhism without the mitigating humanism of the Buddhist conscience. ... [M]onks are equally vulnerable. Many condone violence against Tamils and some would openly say that the solution to the ethnic problem is to kill Tamils.
Dharmapala once made a speech in which he spoke of "barbaric vandals", under whose influence the Sinhalese were "declining slowly away." According to Dharmapala in that speech, "Christianity and polytheism [i.e. Hinduism] are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, prostitution, licentiousness, lying and drunkenness."

This was a country visitors even 30 or 40 years ago described as "peaceful", "paradise", "harmonious" and the like. But decades of Dharmapala's kind of "nationalism", repeated by so many others, has turned paradise into a bloody mess. Today, Sri Lanka is wracked by an unending civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority that has killed tens of thousands. It is home to arguably the world's most committed, brutal, deadly terrorists -- the LTTE.

Just days ago, Sri Lankan authorities evicted hundreds of Tamils from Colombo. According to the police, this was a "security precaution ... only those who had no valid reason to stay in the capital were evicted." (one news report).

Some outrage later, the evicted Tamils are "trickling back." But even so, the mind boggles. "No valid reason to stay"? Since when do citizens of an openly democratic country need to show a "valid reason to stay" anywhere in their country? Of course, a Lankan newspaper also editorializes that these people evicted are "Tamils of no fixed abode, vagrants and ne'er do wells."

Which, of course, reminds me of those words Dharmapala used: "hadi demalu."

There should be lessons from Sri Lanka for at least two large neighbours it has to the north. I'm not sure the neighbours will take them.

But I am reminded of what the Roman philosopher Lucretius said in the first century BC: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.

That's Latin. It means, approximately: "So much is the evil that religion drives men to."


Anonymous said...

Have always thought that SL is more about ethnicity than religion.

Also think the cause of the divide (language/ belief/ ethnicity/ whatever) picks up the rap for the hatred already within those who align to those divisions.

Is there a Latin saying for the hatred driven by just plain "otherness".


Anonymous said...

This issue started when Lankans treated the Tamilians as a minorities/aliens,after the establishment of LTTE it turns as a war..Its not good to ask separate country(Ellam),But at the same time Lankan Govt.,should not show the partiality between Tamilians and Sinhalas....
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Kavi said...

The issue is more to do with ethnicity, i thought. I always believed so. This is a new dimension.

So much so for buddhism, and the Gautama ! History will repeat. I guess.

Anonymous said...

This is a rant -
If "Tantum religio" is easy to realize then let all of us who reject religion and other things to do with the theistic idea of God say so at every turn of a religious thought. Let us be truly secular by failing to recognize people by their religion. Let us do as Dawkins and Dennett in our our little way.

- Z