THE INNER SELF
BY Priyan Rajapaksa
As postwar Sri Lanka struggles to find a path to reconciliation and inter-communal peace, it’s time to rid the national psyche of the hypocrisies and contradictions that one community harbours over the other.
Introspection is urgent as there’s an attempt to politicise religion and resurrect or reincarnate legislation about religious conversions that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2004.
I will describe my experience, growing up in the coastal town of Panadura where the twin railway lines ended and toddy belt began!
The search for one’s soul begins with the stomach and the hypocrisy began at the core.
Officially, Sinhalese-Buddhists do not eat beef because in accordance with religious precepts (Dhammapada verse 130), they shouldn’t kill or cause to be killed. As there’s no exemption in the Dhammapada as to killing fish, chicken or goats, there was a tacit interfaith deal to maintain a variable diet for all.
In the 1960s, there was a single market stall for beef, mutton and chicken. The butchers were Muslims who did not consume any flesh unless it was killed according to religious rites.
The majority made use of the convenient excuse that meat was part of the diet among Muslims and Christians. Unfortunately, goats had a lower ‘karmic impact’ than cattle on the holier-than-thou Buddhists and Hindus for whom mutton was considered kosher but beef wasn’t.
Chickens had the worst deal of all domesticated animals. Those who went to great lengths to avoid beef biryani would happily gorge themselves on the chicken equivalent. Most people loved and ate chicken. This may be a case of positive discrimination but the chickens likely preferred otherwise.
The inoffensive yet much maligned pig, reviled by many faiths, was my favourite meat. Luckily for us Sri Lankans, there were Catholics who killed for the table.
From Chilaw to Beruwela (or the ‘catholic belt’), a special Sunday lunch wouldn’t be complete without pork curry. More recently, pork has been available at the MPs’ restaurant in parliament as well.
Poor ‘porky’ didn’t even have a dignified death. The area where murdered cattle, goats and chickens were sold could not have a pork stall in the vicinity as that may offend or tempt some to sample the succulent flesh.
Pork was sold in different areas of town that were strategically located in proximity to the two main taverns. The infidels on the way to purchase their Sunday arrack would pick up a pound or two of pork for lunch well out of sight of the Muslims.
Sri Lankans of all faiths ate fish – even the Buddhists and Hindus who undertook not to kill every day. Luckily for them, the fish in the seas off Sri Lanka must have suffered from depression, and were suicidal and self-sacrificing.
Local fisherman who hailed from different faiths only had to lower their nets or hooks into the sea, and fish would swarm into the nets or swallow the hooks to die and be consumed by all faiths without a second thought that theirs was also a life – although religions on the whole recommend that life not be taken.
I’ve heard the glib argument that a fish, being a small animal, does not feel the pain of a large animal such as a cow. While I don’t know of any talking fish to verify this claim, neither have I seen a fish that doesn’t thrash about in its death throes when pulled out of water or bleed when cut.
A Shakespearean fish may echo Shylock from the Merchant of Venice and inquire: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
As for alcohol, with Sri Lanka being a predominantly Buddhist country, citizens have a strange attitude to this elixir of life. The fifth and most neglected precept is often ignored… so much so that the nation boasts a per capita consumption of 3.7 litres a year.
In many homes including our own, the Sunday meal was preceded by liberal servings of arrack, distilled by Buddhists and distributed by tavern renters of the same faith who gave generously to temples.
A book titled ‘A Three Generational Tale,’ which was written by a relative, notes the following: “The leading Buddhist families of Panadura like the Diases, De Fonsekas and Salgados were tavern renters.”
They sold arrack with one hand and built temples with the other. Recently, I came across my great grandfather’s will and one of his occupations was tavern renter.
He made a fortune but the arrack my great grandfather sold also entered the DNA of descendants who spent their inheritances drinking the ‘old stuff.’ Of his many properties, my mother was left with only the ancestral house. While I do not believe in karma, perhaps there’s an inkling of truth to it.
My conclusions are that people practise religion when it suits them and ignore it at other times. Priests and politicians vocalise religion for their own ends. Why don’t we simply ignore their clamour and go about life minding our own business?
Let’s purify our inner selves first.