Vesak 2017 will be a little more than thrice-blessed for Sri Lanka with the United Nations deciding to celebrate the Vesak festival here, with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari being among the VIPs attending it.The three-day international Vesak conference at the BMICH here will have a significant theme, “A peaceful and just society”.
Significantly it was the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who 14 years ago played a key role in getting Vesak declared as a UN holiday. This is a good sign for inter-religious harmony, for all religions to work together on some of the world’s key issues – poverty alleviation, the battle against climate change and the peaceful resolution of conflicts without resorting to war or violence.
For poverty alleviation, a key issue is a simple and humble lifestyle. Political and religious leaders specially need to set an example -- by practising alpechchethawaya, not just preaching it. Religious leaders specially need to regularly remind devotees of the need to avoid wasteful expenditure, luxuries and extravagance. By saving more, the people could share more and contribute at least a little towards a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources. This is vital for poverty alleviation because in the world today we see the monstrous horror where eight super-billionaires are known to have more wealth than 90% of the population.
In Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena is personally working out various dimensions of the poverty-alleviation programme. Among others we need to see major structural changes whereby the development programmes will provide benefits not just to the rich and ruling elite but to all, mainly the rural people. The National Unity Government is stressing that its development strategy will be sustainable, eco-friendly and all-inclusive. We hope this vital promise will go beyond words. So far this has not happened to a significant extent and one indication of it was the record crowd that turned up for the joint opposition’s May Day rally at the Galle Face Green. Some analysts say that at former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rally the crowd was more than the combined number at the rallies organized by the Pro-Sirisena Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). The turnout apparently jolted the Government and reports say immediate steps are being taken to win the hearts and minds of the people because most people, even those who worked hard and enthusiastically voted for the Maithripala Sirisena Government, seem to think that though much was promised little has been produced.
Of course, this is the first time the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, are working together. Not surprisingly, there are reports of friction and factionalism on various issues including the Hambantota Port deal with China and the Memorandum of Understanding to give India access to economic assets in the East. May Day 2017 was a wake-up call for the National Unity Government that it should work effectively towards all-inclusive development, inter-religious and inter-racial dialogue, unity and co-operation.
In finding eco-friendly solutions to climate change issues, religious leaders could take steps for solar-energy panels to be installed in their places of worship. For instance, instead of spending vast amounts on various festivals, the expenses could be cut down and the money used to install solar-energy panels. If the religions set the example then most private institutions and some families may also set up solar energy panels. If thousands of schools also do this, it will be like sunshine at midnight instead of darkness at noon.
As Pope Francis is doing, more religious leaders also need to come forward and speak out strongly for a peaceful resolution of conflicts among countries and communities through dialogue and compromise on the middle path, instead of war or violence. Nine countries possess nuclear weapons, some of them known to be about 50,000 times more powerful than the atom bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Non-proliferation is good but not enough. There needs to be disbanding because the nuclear weapons’ threat is more devastating than all the threats from climate change.
Reflections on these and related key issues at the International Vesak Conference here this week could be a source of enlightenment for the world, going far beyond traditional pandals, lanterns and other Vesak festivities.