Religion, commerce and intolerance

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 30 December 1998, 00:23 GMT]
(News Feature) A project by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Tourism to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram at Seetha Eliya near Nuwara Eliya in the island's hill country with a view to attract Indian pilgrim tourists now hangs in the balance following a strong protest yesterday by forty Buddhist organisations.

Seetha Eliya is believed by Hindus and some Buddhists in Sri Lanka to be the spot where Raavana, the mythical king of the island, had kept Ram's wife Seetha as his prisoner.

The believers think that the grass that grows on the spot has a yellowish appearance as a result of the fire that was set by the monkey god Hanuman who was sent by Ram to look for Seetha in Lanka.

The controversy over Seetha Eliya broke out following a proposal by the Ministry of tourism to build a temple complex to Ram on 39 acres in Seetha Eliya.

The ministry had hired as consultant, an Indian journalist who was a tourism expert to suggest projects for attracting tourists from India to Sri Lanka.

Currently, according to ministry sources, only four hundred thousand tourists from India visit the island annually. This is only twenty percent of the tourists who visit Sri Lanka each year they said.

The ministry believes, on the basis of studies it has carried out in recent times, that more than a million tourists and pilgrims from India could be annually attracted to Sri Lanka if it develops the right places for the purpose.

The journalist consultant hired by the ministry had visited several locations for this project and had suggested Seetha Eliya as the place where devotees of Ram from India could be attracted.

As the preliminary phase of the project, 800 Indian pilgrims were invited to offer devotions to Ram from January 6 to Jan. 15 next year.

The ministry entrusted the execution of the program to the chief prelate of the Buddhist temple in Seetha Eliya and advanced him eighty thousand Sri Lankan rupees for the expenses.

Several Sinhala Buddhist organisations, meanwhile, got wind of the project and began a protest, claiming that the Ram temple complex at Seetha Eliya was an insidious conspiracy on the part of Hindu India to destroy Sinhala Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

As politically powerful Buddhist monks such as Ven.Maduluwawe Sobitha were in the forefront of the protest, the government decided to consult all shades of Sinhala Buddhist opinion about the project.

A meeting was hence convened by the Minister of Tourism Mr.Dharmasiri Senanayaka, a confidante of the Sri Lankan President, yesterday at the Divisional Secretary's office at Nuwara Eliya.

The forty Buddhist organisations which took part protested vehemently against the Seetha Eliya plan.

Some of them asserted that the temple for Ram was a ruse whereby India was trying to expand its hegemony over Sri Lanka, pointing out that the Indian Emperor Asoka had used religion to establish his sway all over the subcontinent.

Others said that the Lanka mentioned in Ramayana was not Sri Lanka but another place in India.

The chief priest of the Buddhist temple at Seetha Eliya who was also present at the meeting handed back the eighty thousand rupees given him by the ministry, saying that he did not want to attend to the 800 Indian pilgrims who are scheduled to visit the place next month.

In the face of this strong opposition, the minister told the gathering that he would refer the matter to the Sri Lankan President for a final decision.

Meanwhile, the trustee board of the Hindu temple at Seetha Eliya has told the ministry that it would look after the welfare of the Indian pilgrims when they arrive next month.

The whole issue is fraught with contradictions said a Sri Lankan Tourism ministry official.

The historical parallel about Asoka achieving his imperial designs through religion is curious because that is how Buddhism is supposed to have come to Sri Lanka he pointed out.

On the other hand sections of Sinhala nationalists have argued in the past that Raavana should be apotheosised as a ruler representing the true ancient heritage of the island.

Former Sri Lankan President Premadasa was an adherent of this school of thought among the Sinhala nationalists and as such he erected a grand statue for Ravana in the Sinhala heartland during his office.

And recently, Mr.Susil Moonasinghe, MP of the UNP, said in Parliament while speaking at the committee stage votes on the budget allocation of the ministry of tourism that Raavana was a king of Sri Lanka and hence it was not correct to build a temple at Seetha Eliya for the foreigner Ram who

invaded the island and killed its king.

Such claims go against the grain of Sinhala historiography which is premised on the belief that the Sinhalese are descended of Aryan settlers who came to Sri Lanka around the sixth century B.C from north India.

However, non-Caucasian physical characteristics and evidence of their recent migration from the Tamil regions of South India, have impelled many Sinhalese to look for a non-Aryan Sinhala Buddhist identity that pre-dates the arrival of Prince Vijaya, the first 'Sinhala Aryan' ruler of the island.

In the forefront of this historical-ideological exercise is Dr.Nalin de Silva who is one of the vocal critics of the Seetha Eliya project.

Dr.Silva's detractors point out that he belongs to a coastal Tamil clan that migrated from Tamil Nadu in the 19th century.

On the other hand Ram is considered the arch symbol of Aryan aggression by Tamil nationalists who claim that the Aryans were barbaric nomads who invaded the subcontinent and destroyed their highly advanced settled civilization such those which existed in Mohanjadaro and Harappa.

They also say that the earliest hymns in the Vedas, which invoke the assistance of gods to protect their herds and destroy the fortified cities where their opponents dwelt, are good proof of the Aryan intrusion.

The persistent theme in the Tamil classics of Tamil kings routing the Aryans in battle both in south India and in the Gangetic plains has lent historical force to the views propagated by Tamil nationalists against the anti-Tamil aspects of Hinduism, mainly the worship of Ram and the veneration of Ramayana, the Sanskrit epic that relates his story.

Periyaar, the founder of the Dravidian political movement and generally considered as the 'father' of Tamil nationalism carried on a popular and aggressive campaign against the veneration of Ram in Tamil Nadu.

He said, while addressing a rally on June 6, 1971 at Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu, "Should we not ask as to who called us (Tamils) Shudras or sons of prostitutes? Is it your god Krishna? If so, where did he say it? If it is in the Gita, should we not take our sandals and beat Krishna and Gita? If you are afraid then you live as a Shudra.

What if we beat Rama with sandals? He says we are Shudras. He killed Shudras. Sambukan was beaten and murdered because he was a Shudra. His limbs were cut to pieces because he worshipped god instead of the Brahmins. Shudras have no right to pray to god. They must worship the Brahmins.

This is what Rama says.... In the story (Ramayana) it is said that a Brahmin died because all sorts of unjust things (Adharma) took place under Rama's rule. Rama asked where the injustice was done. What wrong was being perpetrated asked Rama.

The Brahmins told him to go forth and find out the cause for himself.

Accordingly he went out in search and found Sambukan doing penance. 'What are you doing? asked Rama. 'I am worshipping god' said Sambukan.

Rama became angry and shouted 'You Shudra fellow! You should worship only the Brahmin! Instead, how dare you worship god?. This is adharma. You should be cut into pieces.'

Like a butcher Rama killed Sambukan."

In the social system prescribed by Vedic Hinduism and its laws as formulated by the Hindu law giver Manu, all Tamils, including the dominant Vellala caste, are Shudras, except the old ruling clans which settled Brahmin colonies in Tamil Nadu and supported them with generous grants and a small section of the traditional Tamil merchant-usurer caste of the region.

Traditional Hindu law denies the Shudras education and Vedic rituals for the worship of god.

The story of Sambukan in the Sanskrit Ramayana exemplifies, according to the Dravidian movement, Ram's role as the Aryan warrior king who upheld Brahminism and its social order where the Shudras were the lowest.

The epic specifically mentions that Ram travelled east, west and north and found not the cause of the adharma that had caused the death of the Brahmin child in his realm; but that he found the Shudra Sambukan doing penance when he traveled to the southern part of Jambudvipa (the Indian Subcontinent).

The followers of Periyar in Tamil Nadu say that the Aryan king Ram was a coward who made use of the Tamils of south India to defeat the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and having achieved his aim, called the former monkeys and the latter demons.

They assert that the Brahmins have secured the services of certain sections of the expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils in the West currently to propagate what they assert is the insidious falsehood that the Aryan invasion of India is a myth and that the Aryan-Tamil historical distinction does not hold water.


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