Editorial | Sunday Observer


Poson – glorious heritage of spiritual geopolitics

When the legendary King Devanampiyatissa accepted the Lord Buddha’s teaching as the official dharma of his royal clan, would he have known that over two thousand years later, a modern state on this same dveepaya would be upholding the Dhamma as a constitutional principle of political community? Would he have imagined that politicians and political parties and entire religious communities and castes would engage in tussles of religious exclusivism and supremacy?

The Ven. Mahinda Thera, being the son of the Emperor Dharmasoka, would certainly have known the geo-strategic intent of his great and powerful father in sending the Buddhist Mission to island Lanka. Asoka, imperial monarch of Maghada and its many dominions, had conquered much, with much bloodshed and social upheaval, but subsequently had adopted a strategy of building friendships and allegiances beyond the imperial borders by means of diplomacy and the spread of spiritual enlightenment.

The Mission of Arahant Mahinda was an early example of the wielding of ‘soft power’ in the establishment of a regional dominion – a dramatic parallel to the Pax Romana. As Dharmasoka himself acknowledges in his many rock inscribed edicts, the Magadhan monarchy had exhausted itself in its many wars of conquest with states and polities around it. As the 13th Asokan Rock Edict narrates, the death and destruction caused by imperial wars “..weighs heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods”.

Inspired by his spiritual encounter with the new Teaching of the Buddha, the Emperor on the one hand regretted the bloodshed and, the instability and disruption caused by imperial aggression. On the other, the newly enlightened emperor saw the value of ensuring the security of his empire and its distant borders by means of consolidating geopolitical alignments and allegiances by means of an ideological unity; through the spread of a healing and moderating spirituality – Buddhism.

As the numerous Asokan Edicts so lucidly expound, the purpose of imperial rule became much more than mere domination and exploitation. Rather, the Emperor wanted his empire to be a haven for all creation – human, animal and environment. Indeed, the 33 Asokan Edicts are hailed today as an early example of enlightened rule, with the seeds of democratic thought embedded in the Asokan proclamations of social security, rational governance and humane treatment of subjects.

Certainly, the Emperor was aware of the many proclivities of political potentates, their wiles and their depredations. Having enforced dominance himself, Dharmasoka spent the rest of his life practising just governance and attempting to spread that justice and social peace throughout his empire and beyond.

Little Sri Lanka was the beneficiary of that imperial munificence. The Arahant Mahinda would surely have impressed upon the monarchy of Anuradhapura, one of the largest urban concentrations in this part of the world at the time, the value of Dhamma-infused governance for both security and social progress. From that moment, this country has developed a profound tradition of religiously-guided rule and governance.

But politics and religion not only complement each other. The vagaries of the rulers and the ruled also take society down into the depths of contestation over ownership and control over both humanity as well as natural resources, including territory. Religion then becomes the fuel of conflict and the tool of subjugation, misused by rulers and the ruled.

This year the Poson festival takes place in the aftermath of an immense socio-political tragedy – the Easter Sunday bombings – that has been compounded by subsequent bouts of social violence. It is violence fuelled, no doubt, by the shock and trauma of April 21, but also incited by unscrupulous political forces bent on exploiting the tragedy for personal political agendas. As elections loom, cynical political interest groups are busy manipulating collective traumas, suspicions, fears and animosities.

Some news media, also obedient to such cynical interests, are busy spreading false information to engineer panic reactions and reinforcing social group animosities in order to channel vote banks in the direction of those seeking to come to power on the wings of tribal mobilisation.

Let Poson be the moment to recall the rationality and intellectual vigour of that first Sermon on the Mount of Missaka Pabbata. The Arahant Mahinda, the progenitor of the Maha Sangha of Lanka, was not just the bringer of the Dhamma but was also the architect of the new religiously-inspired Sri Lankan state. We need look no further than Emperor Dharmasoka’s own 13th Rock Edict to understand the immense guidance that the Dhamma gives for civilised and progressive governance:

“The Beloved of the Gods does not consider gifts or honour to be as important as the advancement of the essential doctrine of all sects. This progress of the essential doctrine takes many forms, but its

basis is the control of one’s speech, so as not to extol one’s own sect or disparage another’s on unsuitable occasions, or at least to do so only mildly on certain occasions. On each occasion one should honour another man’s sect, for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own sect and benefits that of the other man; while by doing otherwise one diminishes the influence of one’s own sect and harms the other man’s. Again, whosoever honours his own sect or disparages that of another man, wholly out of devotion to his own, with a view to showing it in a favourable light, harms his own sect even more seriously. Therefore, concord is to be commanded, so that men may hear one another’s principles and obey them.”