Dear reader, please hold fire before accusing me of insulting the Buddha, with my title, as it is the last thing I wish to do during this season of Vesak. In fact, the longer I live the more I realise the greatness of the Buddha. Perhaps, to avoid confusion I should have titled this piece "Why did Buddha fail in the country of his birth?" as, probably, it is India that recognises his greatness least by not following His teachings. I am reminded of the Sinhala saying "Game Buduwennawath epa" which highlights the dictum that you are least appreciated in the place of your birth!
These thoughts occurred to me while watching the DVD of the masterpiece of a film, Water, by Indian born Canadian director Deepa Mehta, admittedly eight years too late! However with utmost pride, I read in 2007 that our own Sarala Kariyawasam won the Best Young Performer in an International Feature Film Award presented by the Hollywood’s Young Artists Foundation, I could see it only recently. This was partly because the film did not have wide release in UK but mostly because I was too busy with my work. Having retired and still being busy, I now wonder how I had time to work!
I was not surprised at all to read in the ‘Encyclopedia of World Biography’ that Stephen Spielberg told Deepa Mehta, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2005 where it was first screened, that Water was the best film he had seen in the past five years. I can not recollect a film that has evoked so much of emotion in me; how fellow human beings are being discriminated against in the name of religion; how the teachings of the greatest human being that ever lived are being totally disregarded in the country of his birth.
Water is the last of Mehta’s ‘Elements Trilogy’ and she is well known to tackle controversial subjects; the first, Fire, released in 1996 was about a lesbian relationship; second, Earth released in 1998 was about the trauma of partition of India. In a way, the delay had its own advantages though I must confess I would have missed a wonderful film if not for the kind gesture of our daughter whose gift made me see both discs of DVD set. Had I seen the film on release, I would have missed the masses of information in the second DVD, specially the 2005 TV interviews (Scanning the movies) of Deepa Mehta by John Pungente. Mehta got the inspiration for Water by an incident that occurred on the banks of the Ganges in 1980s; a widow in her eighties was looking high and low for something and burst into tears when she could not find it; a pair of spectacles which was her only worldly possession. Having realised the plight of widows even in the eighties, she decided to make a film set in late 1930s, an era when child marriage was still legal in India but more importantly, it was the time of awakening under the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi. Mehta wished to portray how religion was misinterpreted and she has done so very successfully. There are some memorable lines which illustrate this: ‘A Brahamin can sleep with any woman and they should consider they are blessed’
What I was intrigued by most was the scale of the protests that erupted in Varnasi when filming began in January 2000. There were death threats on the director and the cast, threats of suicides in protest and, finally, the complete set built on the banks of river Ganges were destroyed. This, in the very place where the Buddha preached his first sermon, ‘Dhammachakka Pavattana Sutta’. His message of non-violence and loving kindness seems to have got lost in time. Buddhists account for less than 0.02% of the Varanasi population.
Mehta abandoned filming in Varnasi in February 2000 and rejected offers for filming in other states of India. It was our luck that with the support of her second husband, George Hamilton, who was also the producer of the film, Mehta started filming in Sri Lanka, with a new cast and under a false title (River Moon), in 2003. It was lovely to see the beauty of our countryside and at the very beginning of the film, though for a brief period, my friend and relation, Buddhi Wickrama portraying an Indian Villager. The entire cast gave a superb performance, no doubt enhanced by excellent direction but the most mesmerising performance, without a shred of doubt, was by Sarala Kariyawasam in her portrayal of the child widow, Chuyia. Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times has commented that ‘never has the Ganges looked so inviting’.
Buddha was a rebel who stood against the caste system, which was enshrined into Hinduism by Brahamins, obviously for their own gains. His words were:
‘Na jatta vasalo hoti, na jatta hoti brahmano
Kammana vasalo hoti, kammana hoti brahmano’
‘By birth not one becomes an untouchable or a Brahamin
By action alone one becomes an untouchable or a Brahamin’
Though it is still a prominent feature in Indian society, fortunately, caste system is a diminishing entity in Sri Lanka which may have been consigned to history if not for the exploitation of it by politicians to win votes! Our Sangha is also not without blame as they persist with a ‘Nikaya’ system at least partly based on cast. Therefore, the question in my title has a relevance to us as well.
The Hindu hierarchy adopted a very pragmatic, some may say cunning, attitude towards Buddha. Rather than categorisng him as a rebel they incorporated by making Him the ninth ‘Avatar’ of Vishnu. Thus Buddhism was ‘swallowed ‘by Hinduism and if not for the actions of Emperor Ashoka would have been a forgotten entity or, at best, a minority religion. This is in sharp contrast to the way Jews and Romans treated Jesus Christ, yet another rebel, whose death on the Cross made him a martyr.It is regrettable that some western journalists, either through ignorance or by design, try to portray that violence is a part of Buddhism, while commenting on the foolish acts of violence some are committing in the name of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. BBC, no longer an impartial broadcaster when it comes to news, recently had an analysis where it was stated that Emperor Asoka used violence to spread Buddhism, ignoring the fact that Asoka became a Buddhist after he united India by a series of wars.
Emperor Asoka’s ‘Dhammaduta’ missions need no elaboration as they are very well known. Due his efforts Buddhism became the dominant religion in Asia and the East but over a period of time declined in India till the resurgence, after independence from the British, due to the conversion of Dr Ambedkar, one of the architects of the Indian constitution. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedker, in spite of belonging to an ‘untouchable’ caste , by sheer effort became a leading economist of his day. He was the Chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution and the first minister of law of independent India. Under the spiritual guidance of Ven. Dr. Hammalawa Saddhatissa Thera, who later became the head of London Buddhist Vihara, Dr Ambedkar and over half a million of ‘untouchables’ embraced Buddhism at a rally held in Nagpur on 14 October 1956.
The triumvirate that preserved Buddhism is completed by Anagarika Dhammapala, whose efforts, in addition to rejuvenating Buddhism in Sri Lanka, resulted in getting the holy sites including ‘Bodh Gaya’ and Mulaghandakuti Vihara back to the Buddhists. He formed the Mahabodhi society and lectured on Buddhism in Asia, Europe and North America.
What is important is not the position but the ability to stand challenges of Science. The fundamental truths of Buddhism have stood the challenges of science and will become increasingly attractive to the educated. In a way, the greatest disservice to Buddhism is to categorise it as a religion. It is a philosophy, a way of life, a religion, a science—all welded together.
The Buddha showed us the path and told us the way to honour him is to take steps along the path but we try to distort the path to suit our purposes. We are keener on ‘Amisa pooja’ than ‘Pratipatti puja’.
Did Buddha fail? No, He did not but by our ignorance we have failed him!
The Island By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana