Religious symbols have two significant characteristics, the empirical and the transcendent. The first emphasises the physical presence albeit, not in reality.
by Mass L. Usuf -
( May 12, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In an ethnic-conflict prone nation like ours, to examine the dynamic correlation between religious symbolism and peaceful co-existence would be instructive. Especially, when they have been imposingly displayed in public places, government offices, police stations etc.
Sri Lanka is not governed by a religious organisation or religious parties. It is a secular country and the government is run by a democratically elected political party(ies). If so, the display of symbols only of a dominant community creates the space to inquire into its constitutional and moral justification. After all, Sri Lanka is a multi-religious, pluralistic and secular society.
Public servants are considered the servants of the government and there duty is to serve the public. A public servant cannot refuse to serve because the party he supports is not in power. His personal political preference is absolutely irrelevant the moment he assumes work in office. If politics is irrelevant, how about religious preference? Religion is always considered a personal choice. Then, is it appropriate to display the religious inclination, of an individual or group of public servants, in a public office? The duty of a public servant is to serve without expressing directly or indirectly, his religious adherence, in words or symbols. This is what ensures the continuity of public administration.
Symbol As An Identity
A symbol possesses the characteristic of identification in addition, to having a perceptive effect. It can be used by a community of people or by a distinct group. In fact, a symbol has no reality in it except that it creates a religious, psychological or sociological sense of belonging or a close affinity to it. By this attachment there is an emotional connection that arises in relation to the symbol. Religious rites, rituals, the feelings of awe, reverence and inspiration. It is qualified by man himself as holy and it enjoys a special status of inviolability for example, the Cross, the Dhamma Chakra. A symbol therefore, can identify those belonging to it. Inversely, those belonging to a group or a religion can be identified with the symbol.
A symbol though by itself is powerless can however, convey an overarching dominant message. For example, the Swastika of the Third Reich during the second world war had this domineering effect.
Research indicates that subliminal exposure to national flags affects political thought and behaviour. “We report a series of experiments that show that subliminal exposure to one’s national flag influences political attitudes, intentions, and decision…. in “real-life” behaviour. The results portray a consistent picture: subtle reminders of one’s nationality significantly influence political thought and overt political behaviour”. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. December 2007)
It is common to see the statue or picture of Buddha prominently displayed in the offices of the government, local bodies, police stations etc. The moment a non-Buddhist enters such premises, a mental barrier is created because he cannot relate himself to that image. A sense of being distinguished and/or excluded pervades one’s mind. A Buddhist, naturally, like fish in water will never get this feeling. What a Buddhist may feel is derived from the above scientific research. It indicates a subliminal exposure to the symbolic image (as in the flag) influences thought, decision making …. in real lifebehaviour. Here the subliminal stimulus is not on the teachings of Buddha but the thought of Buddhism and ‘Buddhist’ country.
“Marx used the expression “ideology” to this function of symbols and he made it into an unprecedentedly powerful political symbol. Symbols are ideologies…… that is consciously or unconsciously created for sake of dominance”. (The Religious Symbol, Paul Tillich, The MIT Press). If peaceful co-existence ‘going deeper into our minds and hearts’ is to be achieved these may need to be addressed in the context of a multi-religious environment.
This should not be misunderstood as a disrespect to Buddha. It also should not be taken as disregarding the sensitivities of the followers of buddha’s teachings. This is only an inquiry with regard to a practise which may contradict the message of the buddha. Buddha statues are normally placed in a location removed from ordinary worldly affairs. Many homes have a separate room, alcove, or cabinet for storage of religious images. This seclusion reminds a person of his/her vows as well as meditation practice. The silent and calm environment helps to purify the mind, build up the serenity within oneself. Overcome the negative emotions of fear, greed, jealousy and hatred etc. of the materialistic world.
Religious symbols have two significant characteristics, the empirical and the transcendent. The first emphasises the physical presence albeit, not in reality. Nevertheless, enabling a delicate reminder and a caution to be conscious. The second, the transcendent, exudes the esoteric message figuratively symbolised therein. Where only the empirical is given relevance or prominence to the neglect of the transcendent, it becomes a falsification of that religious object. Since at the core of objectification is the figurative transcendent qualities which it is supposed to convey. When the priority is for the physical, the essence is lost. There is more insult to the symbol than reverence; More hypocrisy displayed than sincerity. Mere ostentatiousness than humbleness.
Therefore, the use or display of religious symbols must be consciously purposive. Where the conscious purposeness is lost the essence is missing. Then, it means nothing and, leads to conduct contradictory to the manifested symbol.
Reflect on the irony of having a huge buddha statue in the compound of a Police Station where sometimes torture, assault, threats, bribery and other forms of corrupt practices allegedly takes place. A lottery seller near a big buddha statue blaring repeatedly over the loudspeaker, ‘Ada wasanawantha Kotipathiya’, today’s lucky millionaire. In the Sigalovada Sutta buddha adviced Sigalaka as follows:
“And what six ways of squandering wealth are to be avoided? Young man, heedlessness caused by intoxication, roaming the streets at inappropriate times, habitual partying, compulsive gambling, bad companionship, and laziness are the six ways of squandering wealth.
Seen are buddha statues also, near ‘three-wheeler’ or trishaw parking lots. A place where they sometimes haggle, lie or are rude to customers. Do these acts have any semblance of metta (loving kindness) or the other precepts in them? I recently saw the serene image of buddha displayed near a drain in a congested spot of a junction, for want of space!
Statue Of Buddha
The early twentieth-century writer Alfred Foucher was the first to articulate the theory of aniconism which has been universally accepted. (“The Beginnings of Buddhist Art,” Journal Asiatique, January-February 1911). According to him the earliest Buddha images were those produced in the Gandhara region more than half a millennium after the Buddha lived. Ananda Coomaraswamy, like Foucher, accepted the theory of aniconism to explain the art in which portrayals of the Buddha in human form did not occur. (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, “The Origin of the Buddha Image,” Art Bulletin 9, no. 4 (1927): 287-328).
Aniconic means, no statue or idol. The Buddha was only represented through symbols such as an empty throne for example. Professor A.D.T.E. Perera of the Department of Philosophy, University of Mexico and former Editor of the Buddhist Encyclopaedia writing a scholarly essay on “Colossal Buddha Images of Ancient Sri Lanka” had stated that Bactrian Greek art influenced the sculpture of colossal images of the Buddha in Sri Lanka. (Sunday Times, 22.01.2012).
“As flame… blown by the force of wind goes out and is no longer reckoned…. Even so the sage, released from name and form, goes out and is no longer reckoned,” and …. the absence of Buddha figures in human form in the early art reflects the Buddha’s “true Nirvana essence [which is] inconceivable in visual form and human shape.” (Early Buddhist art and the theory of aniconism by S. L. Huntington Art Journal Vol. 49 No. 4, 1990).
If it is considered that the above makes sense, it becomes the responsibility of the respected Sangha community to vocalise against the proliferation of buddha’s image. The monks in the temples must guide the lay people not to indulge in such superficial acts of veneration. The Sangha has a noble duty to act, being the repository of this teaching. They must be fully supported by the devout lay Buddhists in this effort. The Minister of Buddha Sasana must enact laws prohibiting the fixing of buddha’s images without prior permission. The Sangha must advice the government to respectfully remove all of these mushroomed statues illegally installed around the city. They should be given a dignified place in temples. Thereby, ensuring the serenity and the transcendent nature of this great teacher.
Surely, no politician would dare to lift a finger on this issue. For them the Sinhalese voter bank is more precious than the buddha.