Politicisation of Religion… the order of the day

Looking for bread on Poson Poya day, I wandered further than usual. This was because the household prefers ‘poranu paan’ – hard to translate, because ‘oven-baked bread’ doesn’t give the idea. After all, (unless I’m mistaken) all bread is baked in ovens.

Poranu Paan refers to bread baked in the old fashioned manner in ovens using firewood as fuel. This gives each loaf a hard crust, both on top and at the bottom, harder on the top and often blackened like charcoal. Despite all kinds of soft breads being available in supermarkets and many food outlets, many people (including myself and our entire household) still prefer the hard-crusted bread baked in firewood ovens, or kilns.

The problem is that these bakeries are closed on many national holidays, especially during religious commemorations. Some close on every Poya day, and almost every such bakery (at least in Colombo) is closed on Vesak and Poson.

This is a new phenomenon which took shape after this government came into power. It’s hard to see the reasoning behind this. Theoretically, all businesses are supposed to close on Poya day (both Vesak and Poson falling on Poya holidays). But many ignore this rule and open. Many groceries remain open, but they won’t sell meat products.

This is a live and let live system which kept many, if not everyone, content. Liquor shops, as a rule, close, as they have done since the Poya holiday became a legal fact in the 1970s. But why should bakeries close? Is bread too, now regarded as ‘sinful’ as meat and alcohol? In that case, why are ‘soft breads’ available in supermarkets, which remain open and avoid selling meat and liquor on Poya days?

Frankly, like with much else in contemporary Sri Lanka, it’s hard to find any underlying logic. You can only hope for the best and keep going. On the other hand, though, the increase in the level of piety was remarkable on Poson Day.

Of course, it is hard, as well as dangerous, to draw general conclusions from surveying a small area. I was travelling down Madinnagoda Road, which was a left turn just after leaving Colombo city limits over the small bridge by the Welikada Ayurvedic hospital, and couldn’t help noticing the proliferation of Poson dansel (alms giving centres) along this stretch.

Traditionally, Poson is a low key affair compared to the high pageantry of Vesak, and this area was no exception. This time, I counted six dansels along a two-kilometre stretch, as well as three large constructions narrating the history of Poson. These were elaborate, well-made constructions, and must have taken weeks of painstaking work. Apart from this, the entire street was covered with flags and dozens of smaller constructions.

" According to political science text books, left-wing politics tend to be secular, while the right veers towards religion. "

With the entire country reeling from inflation and taxes, with the urban population said to be hardest hit by the economic squeeze, people have spared no expense for their Poson celebrations. How do you explain this paradox?

In this country, every government has worked hard at mixing piety with politics. The culmination of this process was the declaration of Buddhism as Sri Lanka’s state religion by the 1970-77 SLFP coalition government. The irony is that this was supposed to be a left-wing regime. But it was a key leftist, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, who was the prime instigator behind this move.

According to political science text books, left-wing politics tend to be secular, while the right veers towards religion. That’s why liberals and conservatives the world over are divided bitterly over subjects such as human rights, immigration, women’s rights, abortion, divorce, same-sex marriages and sex education. In Sri Lanka, however, we are astonished to find that both the left and right are agreed on much of the above – both, for example, are against the legalisation of abortion, introducing sex education to schools or same-sex marriages (you don’t even have to ask – you can simply assume that they will howl against such immorality from both sides of the fence).

Both the left and right have maintained this status quo where Buddhism is concerned. It’s the safest thing to do, and this government has taken this very basic political panacea of the intellectually bankrupt to new heights with its hysterical promotion of religion since the war’s end, and that is not a coincidence by any means. Getting the poor to pray when the going gets rough is a sure fire pill handed out to the masses by  politicians all over the world. This is harder to do in developed countries with better democratic traditions and more politically savvy electorates. But it never fails to work in poor, less developed places – up to a point, anyway.

But a critic can now ask why people voluntarily spend their money and precious time on religious feasts during such hard times. At a small grocery, I watched a woman, obviously quite poor, buy two four-litre ice cream containers. She told me it was for her neighbourhood ice cream dansela.

The reasons for this self-sacrifice are to be found in the failure of our society to instill secular political values (aimed at serving national unity) in the minds of Sri Lankans. The education isn’t secular. It’s still divided along religious lines, as is every key public institution, including the security establishment. No wonder our politicians succeed so spectacularly in selling religion to the masses. Ranil Wickremasinghe is the only secular national-level politician we have. While he’s severely criticised for his inability to mobilise an effective opposition, his critics overlook the fact that his liberal-secular outlook stands no chance with a majority which votes for religious fervour. That’s why, in trying to promote his new constitutional proposals, he has to fall on what the Buddha told warring kings in 5th century BC.

For the religious, all the piety can be deeply touching. But I have dreamed, since the days of my youth, of seeing  Sri Lanka progress into a modern secular state. From today’s stand point, only a miracle would now get us to that, and I don’t believe in miracles as a secular person. If secular miracles are possible, I hope one will happen.

In many countries with more sensible development plans (India, despite deep-rooted extremism, being one), national planners do not make religion a top political priority. Education, industry, the arts, information technology – these are more important goals. India is a secular state and it’s that secularism which holds it together.
Sri Lanka has a record number of mobile phone owners. India is ahead when it comes to personal computers. I doubt very much if that woman who bought ice cream has a PC at home. Our politicians are very good at declaring ‘information technology days’ but their real priority is to promote religion. We keep getting backward and xenophobic while much of the rest of the world keeps getting ahead.  It’s religious faith, not education and knowledge, which guides the minds of our people.

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