A festival of lights of sorts, Vesak is one of those rare holidays in which it seems the whole of Sri Lanka is awake and celebrating all through the night. Colourful lanterns are strung up in front of houses or displayed on the streets.
The street displays are a showcase of creative talent with lanterns that are impressive in sheer size, intricacy or both. Packed with throngs of people who head out to see the lantern displays, visit dansalas (make-shift food stalls that distribute food for free), and watch shows (Bhakthi Geetha), the streets are alive with activity till the wee hours of the morning.
Though, all the glitz and merrymaking, you can’t help but wonder if Vesakh has lost its core spiritual aspect. According to * Nethmi Jayawardena (23) a PR associate at an NGO, Vesak like most other religious festivals has succumbed to commercialization. “I actually got an email forward asking me to “Find peace this Vesak, and it was a promotion for a hotel. Vesak is not actually about the pandols and the lanterns, it’s about revering the Buddha and the Dharma most importantly,” she asserts, adding the Buddha never wanted people to forget the point of the Dharma and focus or follow other cultural veins.
“Especially with all the sad things happening in the country today, be it injustice, poverty or rampant social issues, one or two days of piousness seems almost hypocritical,” she says. Nethmi celebrates Vesak in the traditional way. She and her family visit the temple, talk to the priests and engage in the customary religious rituals. Her family also gives alms to the temple and other places which are in need.
This year, Nethmi made contributions to some animal welfare causes and to keep it going in the long term. Taking middle ground, Janith Leanage (19) an IT student, says that as long as people visit the temple, Vesak won’t lose its meaning. Though he agrees it has gradually become more commercialised and more of a fun-oriented holiday than it once was.
“But the spirit of giving is still there, and there’s a lot of ‘dansal’ and lots of meritorious activities that take place in temples around the country,” he adds. “It has been commercialised, just like Christmas, but how much is too much? And does that commercialisation eat into the true spirit of Vesak?” he asks, saying that he himself is unsure about the answer.
“I’d just like to add that Buddhism isn’t really a rigid religion that tells you to do this and don’t do that. It allows you to find your own path following in the footsteps laid out in the Dhamma. As the Buddha said, the greatest offering you can make for him is following the Dhamma, and not ‘amisa’ pooja like lighting lamps or offering flowers. So I don’t know how ‘celebrating’ Vesak makes you a real Buddhist or not,” shares Janith who celebrates Vesk by putting up a Buddhist flag and decorative lights in front of his house. He says his mom visits the temple and observes ‘sil’ though he didn’t follow any special rituals. “We also light oil lamps in the night and then go around Colombo to look at the pandols and lanterns,” he adds. For Samantha Gooneratne (27), celebrating Vesakh on a community level isn’t an option.
Oceans away, Samantha is in England working on her PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. The closest Buddhist temple being too far for her to visit and of course, Vesakh isn’t a national holiday in England. However, she does celebrate the festival on a personal level by reflecting.
Contrary to Nethmi’s view, Samantha believes that those who understood the meaning of Vesak in the first place, the meaning will never be lost.
“To those who never understood it, there’s nothing to lose! I suppose it depends on each person and how they regard Buddhism. Buddhism has two complementary forms of worship in ‘pratipatthi’ (principles) and ‘aamisa’ (rituals) pooja, and I guess it’s up to the individual to decide which one is more important to them. So to someone who considers themselves a practising Buddhist, whether in terms of principles or rituals, the meaning of Vesak, as they see it, cannot be lost,” she says.
Speaking about the commercialisation of Vesakh, she too says that many religious festivals have suffered the same fate. “I guess it’s only natural that businesses try and cash in on what they perceive to be a lucrative market” she elaborates, “If consumers fall prey to clever marketing, they only have themselves to blame”.