Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Animal Rights, Multiculturalism & “Purity”

by Charles Sarvan, The Sunday Leader, Colombo, October 2, 2011

Was the “performance” of the Minister of Public Relations a wanton display of the arrogance that, almost inevitably, goes with power (the Nelson Mandelas of this world are a rarity) or did he act out of rational conviction, after deep and careful thought? Or was it that, being a true Buddhist, he took to the stage out of deep compassion and a sense of ethical outrage? Was the thought of an innocent goat (or was it a chicken?) being ceremoniously slaughtered simply too much for his sensitive conscience and kind heart, such that he took action - even though the ritual is not against the law of the land? Did he act lawlessly in obedience to a greater (ethical and religious) law? One thinks of Jesus storming into the temple and chasing out the money-lenders and traders who had turned it into a place of business. Christ’s objection was not to the practice but to where it was done – in a holy place. It must have been like that with the Minister of Public Relations. Of course, there is a difference: Christ was a Jew “cleansing” a Jewish place of worship. It was not, for example, a Christian, Hindu or Moslem (alphabetical order) marching into the Kelaniya or Kandy temple and protesting at the chanting (mindless or otherwise) of prayers, the emphasis in Buddhism being on individual effort and conduct...

The following reflection is a result of reading a letter published under the title ‘A law unto himself’. I gather Dr Mervyn Silva, Minister of Public Relations, stormed into the Munneswaram (Hindu) temple and stopped the ritual sacrifice of an animal (or animals) which forms part of a religious ceremony. I don’t know the motive and scope of his action. Was the objection to the killing of animals per se? Or only to it being done in a public space, in this case, a temple? Is it analogous to executions in the past which were public example and spectacle that people were expected, even obliged, to attend but now are carried out in private? Is it that killing animals in relative privacy – in an abattoir or in one’s house - is acceptable but not when done in public? Is the method of killing animals at home or at an abattoir kinder?

I am confident the Minister is an animal-lover and, in his own life, a pure vegetarian. Many who convert to vegetarianism do so out of compassion. The compassion is for the killed animal but, often, even more for the suffering which precedes the slaughter: the awful condition in which they are penned for days and months, and the manner of their transportation to the abattoir. (Though not an extenuation, I am told an animal identified for religious sacrifice at some future date is, thereafter, accorded special consideration.) Animals don’t have intelligence but, not being machines, have feelings: they experience pain. The “lament” and general behaviour of these captive animals seem to indicate they sense death is imminent and inescapable. The actual dying takes but a few minutes, if not seconds and, in context, is a merciful release. To treat animals differently from human beings has been termed “species-ism” – on the lines of “racism”. On the other hand, there have been examples of affection, care and pity being extended to animals while human beings considered to be ‘the Other’, different or subordinate, were treated cruelly.

Rather than personally storming into each and every abattoir in the Island and shutting it down, the best would be to enact legislation turning Sri Lanka into a vegetarian island. Sri Lanka would then add yet another distinction to its already distinguished record: the first officially vegetarian country in the world. However, far more important than such competitive vanity, it would be in keeping with Buddhist teaching: a genuine Buddhist (that is, one not merely Buddhist in protestation but in practice) is a vegetarian. No doubt, the animal-welfare organisations who, going by the letter, congratulated the Minister on his brave act will support such a move, as much deserved as it is long over-due. Of course, Moslems and the slaughtering of sheep, particularly at the festival of Eid, must be made an exception because thousands and thousands of Sri Lankans work in Islamic lands, and the remittance they send is a valued source of foreign exchange. Further, Moslem countries buy large quantities of tea: realpolitik.

Turning to multiculturalism, some of its lustre seems to have been lost of late, and its slogans now looked upon with scepticism: Let a hundred different flowers blossom, and the world will be all the more attractive for it. Variety is not only interesting but enriching. Doubts and misgivings have arisen. Are we, in the name of multiculturalism, to tolerate the intolerable? (In this instance, are we to continue to permit the un-Buddhist practice of killing animals, be it at a place of worship or anywhere else?) In the name of multiculturalism, are we to countenance the stoning to death of a woman thought guilty of adultery? But this, it may be countered, is to cite unfairly an extreme example in order to discredit a moderate proposition. Was the “performance” of the Minister of Public Relations a wanton display of the arrogance that, almost inevitably, goes with power (the Nelson Mandelas of this world are a rarity) or did he act out of rational conviction, after deep and careful thought? Or was it that, being a true Buddhist, he took to the stage out of deep compassion and a sense of ethical outrage? Was the thought of an innocent goat (or was it a chicken?) being ceremoniously slaughtered simply too much for his sensitive conscience and kind heart, such that he took action - even though the ritual is not against the law of the land? Did he act lawlessly in obedience to a greater (ethical and religious) law? One thinks of Jesus storming into the temple and chasing out the money-lenders and traders who had turned it into a place of business. Christ’s objection was not to the practice but to where it was done – in a holy place. It must have been like that with the Minister of Public Relations. Of course, there is a difference: Christ was a Jew “cleansing” a Jewish place of worship. It was not, for example, a Christian, Hindu or Moslem (alphabetical order) marching into the Kelaniya or Kandy temple and protesting at the chanting (mindless or otherwise) of prayers, the emphasis in Buddhism being on individual effort and conduct (emphasised).

The ideal of those intolerant of tolerance is uniformity and “purity”. However, to lead a pure life in private is quite different to “purity” as political rhetoric, state policy and enforced public practice. The extreme severity of the Puritans (of the 16th and 17th centuries) comes to mind. Paradoxically, those who intensely wish to realize a “pure” society (be it in “racial”, cultural or religious terms) aim to go forward by going back to some (imagined) utopia in the past – a past so distant that it can be re-created to suit one’s wishes and agenda. It is not surprising that the Wahhabi movement in 19th century Arabia rejected the modern; sought not to advance but to return and re-create a golden, uncorrupted, past. Purity-seekers believe (as intensely as irrationally) that some evil or contamination threatens to damage, if not destroy, one’s own people and way of life. Such movements generate mass fear and anxiety. In turn, fear and anxiety create anger, hate and a ready willingness to unleash force and cruelty in order to secure domination and, through domination, safety: the survival instinct is as strong in the individual as in the group. No discussion, much less opposition, is tolerated, whether from within or outside. One remembers the Nazi obsession with purity and, later in time, Pol Pot of Kampuchea who dreamt of a clean and honest society. The two basic values propounded by his regime were work and purity. The aim was to purify the race and to sanitize the country.

As I have written elsewhere, the “dreams” of some become nightmare and great tragedy to others. Still closer in time, much “dirt” and sorrow were visited in the name of “cleansing”. The phrase “ethnic cleansing” is now a short-hand for bigotry and cruelty on the one side, and for suffering – large-scale and pitiful – on the other.

That change is best which comes (a) voluntarily, out of conviction (b) from within a group or culture rather than superficial conformity imposed by force from outside.