Commercialism glitters brighter than the true message of Vesak

By C. N. S.

This thrice-hallowed day . . . birth, enlightenment, death . . . devotees dressed in immaculate white . . . wending their way to temple and shrine. . . fair, fragrant flowers. . .

A fifteen-year-old in the middle of the last century, now in his seventies as the first decade of the millennium draws to an end, remembers the Vesak of his childhood and a few phrases from his English essay on the subject. An essay had to be written at the week-end to submit to his teacher on Monday. The beloved English teacher (may he rest in peace) read this one out to the class as one among the good essays of that week; that was his practice in those unhurried, untroubled and spacious schooldays, which are now no more.

Vesak however is not no more. Our illustrious Minister of Foreign Affairs Lakshman Kadirgamar (tragically no more) used his persuasive oratory at the General Assembly in 1998 to have the Day of Vesak - the day on which Gautama was born, achieved Enlightenment and passed away - declared a Day of Observance in the United Nations system.

Everything for sale: From lanterns to masks

The resolution to that end, adopted by the General Assembly, was moved by Sri Lanka and co-sponsored by 34 other States - comprising Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Marxists, across the world. The international community had thus united to honour the name and the teachings of one of the greatest spiritual leaders of humankind.

The Buddha was a Prince of Peace. He preached tolerance, love and compassion. His message brought initially to millions of people in South Asia, East Asia and South East Asia, and now brings to hundreds of millions of people all over the world, solace, peace of mind and understanding of the unsatisfactoriness of the human condition. Vesak is a universal event.Today however our sense of holiness has withered in a mundane maze of the profane and our quest for holiness given way to the appetites and avarice for the material.

The dansala was a traditional gesture of generosity and hospitality, to feed the hungry and weary, to bring happiness to others. Today groups of young people well in advance of the thrice-blessed day go from house to house collecting or more correctly extorting funds to organize a dansala. Not one group but several within a week before the sacred day knock on your door or ring your bell at all odd hours of the day, even late in the night. One wonders where these dansal are held. There are collectors or extortionists for a Poson dansala too a month later.

A fast food business in town have put their act together (or got in on the act, or both) this year with an advertisement promoting their ware as a Vesak treat. By government decree, all liquor ships and bars are closed during Vesak but there is nothing to stop devotees of Bacchus from stocking up to tide over the well-intentioned prohibition as they do every Poya Day. Illegal sales of liquor are also not unheard of.

Vesak lanterns are no longer made at home as a loving co-operative effort in a spirit of saddha. They are mass-produced and sold by the wayside like the Vesak cards, another recent accretion. Not all these cards convey the message of Vesak.

The sacred day of Vesak which is purely a religious festival has turned into a festive occasion. On this day all Buddhists are expected to reaffirm their faith in the Buddha Dhamma and to lead a noble religious life. It is a day for meditation and for radiating metta. So it was in the past but now it is not as it was of yore.

There was, for instance, a kind of musical fiesta a few years ago in a vacant lot at the top of our lane; it featured pop songs of the now popular TV “Super Star” variety and attracted large crowds of young people as if to a carnival. Vesak had been carnivalized.

Vesak is holy. Certain places are holy. Certain times are holy. Certain relationships are holy. But we have lost the sense of the holiness of place, of time, and of relationships. Youngsters and young couples throng our temples and flock around Vesak pandals as if they were visiting a carnival. The holy time of Vesak is no more holy, “breathless with adoration”.

Mercifully, however, amid the banal and the vulgar not all is lost. We shall still see scenes of our childhood -unforgotten and unforgettable: families of devotees making their way to temple to offer flowers that will “haste away so soon” -symbols of anicca; we shall also still see outside humble homes rows of little Vesak pahan and glowing Vesak kuudu made with saddha to summon up remembrance of Sybil Wettasinghe’s delightful children’s story of the same name and of times that are no more; we shall hear bhakthi gee and an abundance of TV and radio Budu bana; we shall watch enactments of sitha nivana katha to soothe troubled souls; above all, we shall see the full orb’d Vesak moon climbing heaven and gazing on our troubled earth. They will all embody the eternal message of the Enlightened One - of karuna, muditha and upeksha.

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