The stars hadn’t ordained, the astrologers hadn’t predicted and the people hadn’t decided it was the auspicious hour for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to emerge from his temple kuti where he oft takes refuge and ascend the UPFA political stage at the Sanath Jayasuriya Matara ground last Friday. The tom-tom beaters had heralded the news [...]

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Memo to MR: Hug the political stage by all means but hands off temples, please

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The stars hadn’t ordained, the astrologers hadn’t predicted and the people hadn’t decided it was the auspicious hour for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to emerge from his temple kuti where he oft takes refuge and ascend the UPFA political stage at the Sanath Jayasuriya Matara ground last Friday.

Mahinda Rajapaksa: Keep temples free of politics

The tom-tom beaters had heralded the news of his grand entrance loud and clear, the whip crackers had corralled the crowds to the grounds with rice packets and booze, the fire torch bearers had lit the evening air and emblazoned it with steamy anticipation and the kavi maduwa on the dais were busy singing hosannas to revive their fallen idol. But when the countdown ended and zero hour dawned, a hundred gas filled balloons of UPFA hope burst in midair when the guest of honour dithered to take the bow on centre stage.

What the people got was a sneak preview, a mere teaser of the shape of things to come. The former president declined to take his sceptred seat on the platform, showed his face among the crowd for a brief moment and, with a few waves of his hand, boarded his vehicle and left the venue, leaving the rest to ‘Win with Mahinda’ all by themselves.

It was widely expected he would finally take the stage here. The organisers had given top billing to his attendance and had proudly proclaimed that Rajapaksa would make his debut after defeat to aggressively launch his campaign to be prime minister from Matara, the capital of his southern stronghold. Instead, what they got from the protagonist was a silent walk in, walk out cameo part that served to be no more than a cheer jerker.

In the previous rally at Welagedara grounds, Kurunegala on May 7, his message to the public read out by loyalist Allahperuma had declared, “I will be back on the UPFA stage soon, but it is the people who will decide when I should do so. I am certain the people’s support for me is as solid as it was before,” he had said.

So what went wrong? Hadn’t the people still decided whether they wanted him back after saying a vehement no to his third term as president on January 8 this year, barely five months ago?

Or was it simply that the crowd that had been brought packed in over 200 buses to cram the Sanath Jayasuriya grounds at Matara was simply not big enough to occupy even one small corner of the vast expanse of his boundless ambitions? Did that make him turn his back on the stage that awaited his presence? Or was one brief look from the spectator gallery at the men and women strutting on the platform enough to give the puppeteer cold feet and, understandably, defer the Advent of Mahinda to another time, another place?

On the surface, however, it seemed that the former president had lost his bearings. The political stage was his natural field, the natural political arena to fire his political salvos where no holds barred political speeches were the order of the day. But to the surprise of many, Rajapaksa, a political natural who bloomed in such charged atmosphere and flowered at his oratorical best, had appeared to wilt and droop like a sunflower at sunset.

Yet he has not shown the same sort of taciturnity when it comes to participating in Bodhi Poojas held at village temples where he, sans a blush, is quick off the mark in delivering political speeches with nary a thought for the sanctity of temple grounds which he is desecrating nor for the tranquillity sought thereat by the devotees which he is despoiling without a qualm. Increasingly, ever since his debacle at the presidential election, he doesn’t speak where he should and speaks where he shouldn’t.

After losing the presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s modus operandi has been to attend Bodhi poojas at village temples and immediately after the religious rituals are over to deliver political sermons attacking Yahapalanaya in mocking tones and even invoking the blessings of the Bodhi tree to temper the corruption crackdown. In villages and towns where these religious functions are held posters appear on roadside walls announcing that ‘President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be participating at the Temple Bodhi Pooja’ and urging the public to attend it, in the manner political posters advertise political rallies at town esplanades. What next? Cardboard cutouts at temple gates? He has even thought it fit to use Abhayarama Temple in Narahenpita as his official political office. This is a disturbing trend and bodes ill if left unchecked.

This blatant use of temple grounds for political purposes has led the government to appeal to all Mahanayake Theras of Buddhist temples to desist from permitting access to any political party to such places for political propaganda work. Media and Information Minister Gayantha Karunatilleke told a media conference on June 4 that former President Rajapaksa has of late been holding political meetings and related functions at Buddhist temples and this was seriously eroding the religious spiritual prestige associated with such places by the devotees.

This request from the Government would in turn have placed the Mahanayake Theras in a spot and would undoubtedly force them to either accede to the Government’s request or to ignore it and allow Rajapaksa to continue using temple grounds to play politics. How are they to turn away the former president of the country from their premises, ostensibly to participate in a Bodhi pooja? How are they to act in a way that does not earn them the displeasure of the present Government?

When almost every strata of civil society is being plagued by the Mahinda syndrome and is in danger of becoming divided as never before, all because one man and his cohort cannot accept the recently delivered people’s verdict as an indictment on their rule, it is saddening to see temples too being dragged into the mire and its resident monks placed in a quandary.

When the state is under a constitutional duty to promote and foster the Sasana, it cannot take a back seat and permit temples to be turned to political pulpits and its hallowed ground to be used as spittoons for political vituperations to be spat out; and apathetically watch the robed guardians of Buddhism become another polarised sect. When divisions are allowed to ferment in Buddhist temples where the Buddha’s message of unity must ring with every gong of the temple bell, it behoves us all to condemn this outrage in no uncertain terms.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s present action of using hallowed temple grounds, where political divisions should be left stranded at the gate by all who enter, will not only lead to division in the Order of Bhikkus but also serve as a precedent. A real and ever present danger exists that it will soon become the norm and be considered as an acceptable act for other politicians, too, to emulate. Soon respect for temple grounds will be the same as respect shown to Sanath Jayasuriya ground at Matara or worse. Temple grounds must not become the preaching fields of politicians.

In this regard a strong appeal must be made to Mahinda Rajapaksa to see the folly of his ways and the damage he will be causing to the Buddhist Sasana if he continues in this reckless manner. He must refrain from continuing to use premises exclusively reserved for religious purposes. The serene air of sanctity that presently exists in temple environs must not be vandalised by politics and turned to a murky pall of partisanship merely because it conveniently enables one to broaden one’s audience in the guise of practising religion. As a former president of Lanka, he must set the example and, placing country and Buddhism above petty political ambitions, immediately stop this despicable practice from ‘going viral’ and influencing younger bankrupt politicians from treading this ignoble path in the belief it will lead them to political office. Imagine how Full Moon Poya days will be at the temple if politicians from all sides of the political divide were to follow this practice and, ostensibly observing sil themselves, were to deliver their pakis-petti oratory to the meditating ‘sil’ devotees. Only the JVP, given its distaste for religion, can be counted on not to tread temple grounds and deliver political speeches.

It is true that Buddhist temples are and must be open to all comers, to both saints and sinners, to the good, the bad and the ugly alike. But it must be only to pay homage to the Buddha, to meditate upon the Dhamma and to tend respect to the Sangha. It is not to toll one’s own political bell, chant one’s own political stanza and exhort the gathered devotees to take refuge in a politician however enlightened he may think he is.

Mahawamsa: How King Dutugemunu respected sanctity of Buddhist temples
The following incident, as chronicled in the Mahavamsa on how Lanka’s most popular historic figure King Dutugemunu conducted himself on temple ground and the extent to which he went to keep inviolate its sanctity may perhaps be an eye opener to all those who aspire to lay claim to Dutugemunu’s crown and glory, today. This story reveals the inherent qualities of the man who, even before he had become King of all Lanka, displayed the praiseworthy traits that won him a lasting place in Lanka’s heart.

The Dematamal Viharaya in Okkampitiya, Moneragala: The scene of historic incident between Dutugemunu and Saddha Tissa

Dutugemunu’s brother Saddha Tissa was on the run. He had dared to challenge Dutugemunu’s right to ascend the throne of their sire Kavantissa. He had taken possession of the dead king’s army, taken Dutugemunu’s tusker Kandula and even seized their mother Vihara Maha Devi. Dutugemunu demands their return. Saddha Tissa flatly refuses.

The first war of the two brothers then begins. In the battle staged at Culanganiyapitthi, Dutugemunu, heavily outnumbered, is defeated and has to flee for his life to Mahagama. ┬áNow with a new army and a new game plan, he meets Saddha Tissa’s forces on the plains of Mahagama. The second war of the two brothers for Kavantissa’s regional crown begins. Whilst the battle rages, Dutugemunu on horseback, cuts through the fighting and dying men and heads in the direction of Saddha Tissa who is riding Dutugemunu’s tusker Kandula. Dutugemunu fires an arrow which grazes Saddha Tissa’s shoulder; simultaneously, he makes his horse leap across Kandula’s path which stops the elephant in its tracks. The tusker recognises his old master Dutugemunu and tries to throw Saddha Tissa off its back. Saddha Tissa, however, manages to hold onto a tree branch and, in the ensuing melee, makes good his escape from the scene of battle.

Saddha Tissa is now on the run. Fleeing the wrath of his brother the King, he manages to make it to Dematamal Viharaya in Okkampitiya, Moneragala. He seeks refuge in the temple, knowing full well his brother would never violate its sanctity and that he will be safe in its cloistered confines.

The chief monk of the temple takes the royal fugitive and hides him in his chambers. Tissa is hotly pursued by an angry King Dutugemunu. He has every reason to be irate. For the last fifty years, on the throne of Lanka sits a Dravidian usurper King Elara who rules from the capital Anuradhapura and claims suzerainty over the island. Dutugemunu’s lifelong ambition to overthrow the Chola invader and unify the land under the Sinhala banner has been put on hold by his brother’s bid to seize his crown. Now Dutugemunu is determined to end all rebellion on his home turf, which will free him to launch his march and achieve his avowed destined goal.

Dutugemunu following Saddha Tissa’s tracks arrives at the Dematamal Viharaya and enters the bedchamber of the chief monk.
He asks the monk: “Where is Tissa?”
The monk replies, ‘”Tissa is not on the bed”.

Realising the true import of the monk’s answer, the King goes down on his knees and as he worships the monk he sees his brother hiding under the bed.

Though covered with a sheet, Saddha Tissa’s toe is sticking out confirming his presence. But the king does not wish to violate the sanctity of the monk’s private chamber and the sanctity of the temple. He rises pretending not to have seen his brother under the bed and withdraws from the premises. He then lays siege on the temple and waits until Saddha Tissa decides to emerge.

Saddha Tissa stays within the safety of the temple for a few days. The chief monk draws up a plan for his escape. Accordingly, he is wrapped in a shroud and placed on a stretcher and is carried out of the temple premises by four monks bearing him aloft on their shoulders. The impression created is that they are transporting the body of a dead monk for cremation or burial. Waiting outside the perimeters of the temple ground, Dutugemunu witnesses the scene and sees through the plan. He is incensed that his brother with his royal upbringing, born and bred in the finest traditions to respect all temples and monks, should insult monks in this fashion. He deplores that Tissa had placed the monks in a position where they have to carry him on their shoulders.

Dutugemunu waits till the cortege leaves the temple grounds. He then approaches it and sees his shrouded brother,
“Tissa,” he shouts, his sheathed sword dangling at his waist, “upon the head of the guardian genii of our house is thou carried forth. But to tear anything away from the guardian genii of our house is not my custom.”

“May thou evermore remember the virtue of the guardian genii of our house,” he berates his brother. Then he lets them pass. Later Tissa, full of remorse, begs his brother to forgive him. The brothers make up and Tissa is left in charge of the south. Only then does Dutugemunu begin his long delayed march to Anuradhapura to overthrow the Chola invader who had usurped the Sinhala throne.

Due to the internecine war, thousands of Sinhalese soldiers had died in battle, men who could have served in the army to fight the common foe Elara. Due to Saddha Tissa’s treachery there was unrest in the south and Dutugemunu’s mission to unify the land was delayed and remained on hold until Saddha Tissa was vanquished. Yet, when the traitor was in Dutugemunu’s reach, when he was surrounded and at his mercy, still the great king did not violate the sanctity of the Buddhist temple. Neither did he violate the sanctity of the monks who dwelled thereat by taking anything from them.

His own urging ambition to dethrone the Tamil King Elara in occupation and to unify the land of his forefathers and hold the sovereignty of Lanka in his triumphant hands, all these goals had to wait. Nothing justified the violation of temple sanctity.

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