‘Censoring’ national unity | Sunday Observer

‘Censoring’ national unity

‘For the serene joy of the pious’ is the exhortation made by the author of the Mahavamsa at the end of every chapter of our ancient historical chronicle, written in the form of a Pali epic poem. The author offers his work as a narrative of the history of his society, namely, ancient Sri Lankan civilisation. In doing so, he exhorts his readers, as citizens of a Dharmic society, to appreciate his narration of the life of their society and be inspired.

Today, some 1,600 years after its composition by the legendary Venerable Mahanama Thera, the Pali Chronicle continues to inspire the citizens of this Dharma Dveepa, not only as an epic poem but also as a valuable guide to our civilisation’s evolution. The Mahavamsa is, itself, not a Buddhist text, but the author, himself a Thera, is moved to ascribe a religious value to his historiographical work, one that is also a creative endeavour in epic Pali poetry.

If those advocates of a religious censorship today, campaigning now for the banning of some new plays and literature, were to have lived at the time of the compilation of the Mahavamsa, they may have demanded that the authorities of the day ban the Mahavamsa for its ‘misuse’ of Buddhist idiom!

‘Dharma’ in all its variations, philosophy, the mystical and, other spiritually inspired, and inspiring, explorations are all creative endeavours that offer humanity something of unique value. At the time of their creation, such religious, mystical and inspirational works were inevitably ‘new’, previously unknown, and often sounded exotic or even mystifying or offensive to some of the audiences at the time. At least some listeners of sermons of new dharmas or chants of new epic poems would have reacted negatively if the new thought or concept or idiomatic phrase sounded unusual or even disturbingly different from the norms and concepts of that time.

Fortunately, the calibre of our ancient civilisation was such that it allowed for wide-ranging debates and discussion of new works of art or philosophy or religion. Nevertheless, we know that in the vicissitudes of human history many a creative work has been deliberately destroyed and suppressed, and consequently, lost to humanity. Fortunately for us, despite their many detractors, many of our dharmas and philosophies (as well as works of art) have been protected and nurtured – sometimes at much human cost – and, today, we are the beneficiaries and we bask in their profound legacy.

Those who have raised a hue and cry over some new radio dramas and literary works recently sponsored for broadcast by the Office of National Unity & Reconciliation (ONUR) should bear in mind that wonderful resilience of human creativity which is the sole reason for the survival of the Mahavamsa and other literary and inspirational treasures to adorn our modern ethos.

The argument of these aspiring religious censors is that these works are ‘anti-Buddhist’ in that they apparently distort the Dharma or demean it. As the authors of these works have rightly pleaded, the works in question need to be read, and listened to (as books, radio plays), before they are attacked and rejected.

ONUR has selected these works for broadcast sponsorship precisely because they are creative endeavours to inspire inter-ethnic understanding, an ethos of tolerance and, national unity. These goals are surely a ‘joy’ for the ‘Pious’ in that they reflect the teachings of the Buddha Dhamma. The intentions of ONUR are the accomplishment of these societal goals which are very much in line with the Dhamma.

But according to their detractors, these works are ‘anti-Buddhist’! Either the religious detractors have not read and understood these works or, the selectors at ONUR are totally incompetent in wrongly selecting works that are against these goals!

The Minister of Finance and Mass Media has been admirably prompt to raise in Parliament last week the matter of these bans and other attempts to suppress these publications. The Minister, having personally ascertained the content and message of these literary works sponsored by ONUR, has strenuously defended them.

The relevant question that needs to be asked is whether these religious detractors (and their political allies) actually empathise with the goals and intentions of ONUR. ONUR has to be seen and appreciated as the ‘soft’ expression of the Sri Lankan State after it was compelled to engage in ‘hard’ political actions to deal with violent insurgency. It is carrying out critical work in the aftermath of war and is aimed at re-unifying a society that has been torn asunder by conflict.

The question is whether there are elements who wish conflict to continue for their own motives of benefitting from strife and human suffering. All propaganda is not art. But when ONUR does find some new artistic creations that do serve the purpose of propagating peace and coexistence should it not be encouraged and applauded?

On the one hand, the management of public expression cannot be controlled by any single authority or body (unless in situations of extreme emergency) and, on the other, if creative new thought is to continue to inspire humanity, then, our hearts and minds must bravely be ready to explore the ‘new’ rather than submit to the fear of the ‘unknown’. 

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