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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Violence and Buddhism: In face of troubling reality

Are the people/states/authorities claiming faith in Buddhism smearing the religion? After a trip to a Buddhist monastery dwelling a peculiar structure of a man holding a monk, I reflect upon the implications of recent bouts of violence where 'Buddhist's are apparently the perpetrators.

Baseline: I respect all religions even though my beliefs are closer to atheism than any religion. But it is immensely painful to see people indulging in all sorts of unsavory and inhumane acts in the name of any religion. While it is difficult to find one religion in world whose purported followers have not engaged in violence some time in history, some religions are widely perceived to have been promoting violence in their name more than others.

To me, what the scriptures of a particular religion say is a matter of secondary importance when coming to characterization of a religion. What is of primary importance is the behavior shown by people following the particular religion. When responsible people in the religious hierarchy are able to spread the values of empathy, compassion, peace, love, harmony and justice among the disciples, that is how religion can impact a society positively. When the opposite is true, beside the perpetrators of hatred and violence, the name of religion itself gets smeared.

Of late, many countries with Buddhism as the major religion have been subject of news for all the wrong reasons. Opposite to the values of empathy and compassion, people claiming to follow Buddhism have indulged in outright violence. While the news items emanating from Srilanka over past two decades were a harrowing tale, purported followers of Buddhism in Burma also appear to be bracing for a similar trajectory with latest wave of violence displacing the Rohingya Muslims.

How religion relates to day-to-day life? This particular structure in a monastery might be symbolizing something in Buddhist religion; I am not aware of religious scriptures. What I can see instead is the fact that this tells a perfect story of relationship between ordinary people and the religion. Out of many meditating monks, the one with largest statue could be Buddha or any other renowned monk. It is indeed through teachings of these people that a religion is known. But who sustains a religion after all, by following and placing faith on it? It is the ordinary people, me and you. The white-colored man with protruded belly and small stature is shown holding the giant precipice on which the monk is meditating. It is indeed these ordinary people, fed or hungry, clothed or naked, who live the lives while following and believing in religions even as they struggle through all the problems in day-to-day life. Any religion, rather than glorifying some chosen people, should care about lives of these ordinary people of flesh and bone. Regardless of the particular philosophy, the problems faced by these people in today's world are similar, across the religions. Only through transforming lives of these people is there any possibility of making this world a better place. Also, these are the people who need peace and harmony the most.

Still closer to Nepal, the claim of high GNH (Gross National Happiness) by the other self-proclaimed Buddhist regime in Bhutan has been possible with a calamitous ethnic purge of a hundred thousand Nepali-speaking people.
Legacy of violent Bhutanese authorities claiming to follow Buddhism: Lotshampa refugees in Beldangi Camp displaying Bhutanese passport. (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

So where are these regimes with Buddhism as formal/official religion taking one of the greatest philosophies in history? With their egregiously racist and violent activities, regimes in countries like Srilanka, Burma and Bhutan are badly damaging the cause of Buddhism. Ignoring the atrocities can only worsen the situation as with each passing month, more people will be accustomed to understand violence and purported Buddhist faith together.

While I have no intention of placing blame on either of the conflicting sides and absolving the other of any responsibility, I feel it is necessary to point perpetrators of violence regardless of their faith or affiliation. While other communities may have also indulged in violence in the aforementioned cases of Srilanka, Burma and Bhutan, the indulgence of the communities/state/authorities claiming to follow Buddhism was disproportionately more and decisive and they had/have the option of opting for solutions other than violence. Also, this piece is the result of my concern to Buddhist philosophy as one of the most tolerant and pacific philosophies in the world. I feel the believers of Buddhism should also come forward strongly deploring violence in any pretext (including the ones in three instances mentioned above) rather than continuing with a detached and vague approach that is likely to be understood by most as their approval of violent activities.



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