Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Religion and faith

President’s Birthday, General’s Resignation and the Angulimala Piritha

“Victory breeds hatred, the defeated lives in pain. Happily the peaceful live, giving up victory and defeat.” — Dhammapada 121)

“A man may plunder, as he will. When others plunder in return, he who is plundered will plunder in return. The Wheel of Deeds turns round and makes the ones who are plundered plunderers.” — Buddha

In November, 2009 I read two notable news stories in the internet.  The first was a news story that appeared on 8 November, on a pro-JVP website: “[U]pon the advice of the astrologers the next presidential election would be disadvantageous to the President and to avoid that the Ministry of Cultural Affairs is in Charge of organizing Island wide religious ceremonies on the 18th November that would begin with Angulimala Piritha.”  The second item was the publication of General Sarath Fonseka’s letter of resignation on several internet news sites. The General felt he was badly treated by the President and slighted by the Defence Secretary because of what he claims were false reports that he planned to launch a military coup.  According to the General these reports “[instigated] malicious and detrimental news items and rumors by interested parties including several senior government politicians which led them to identify me as a traitor in spite of my personal contribution of the government to change the history of our country.”  While the media speculates that the President and the General will compete against each other in the next Presidential election, both are busy creating public displays of their relationship with Buddhism.   In the meantime, people are growing anxious because they do not know what the future will hold.

Let us take a short walk back through the social history of the Angulimala story. Once we understand the story in historical context, our society’s complicity with the contemporary distortion and political exploitation of the Buddha’s teachings about crime, punishment and individual and social transformation is revealed.  Through the lens of history we can see today’s performers and recipients of its blessings in a clear light, and that story is now exploited for political gain: The political context in which Angulimala was transformed and redeemed is similar to the situation today. But unlike Angulimala, those who seek the Pirith are not also seeking to change their character and become better people.

In Angulimala’s time, King Pasadeni reigned in the Kingdom of Kosala, which corresponded roughly in area with the region of Oudh, and is now south central Utra Pradesh.  It was 6 BC, and, according to Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas, it was ruled by the Kosalas, who descended from king Ikshvaku to Ikshvaku to Presenajit (Pasenadi).  Kosala was a decentralized state, very similar to S.J. Thambiah’s description of “galactic state” where all its administrative units known as mahaganapadas enjoyed high degree of autonomy from the ruler.  Its’ political culture was neither theocratic nor secularist.  No one religion had monopolistic influence over the state power.   Many members of the royal family was active stakeholders in the Pasadeni’s regime, and it is likely that some of them were had non-Buddhist consorts.

Ayodhya (Ayojjhā in Pali) was the capital of Kosala Kingdom.  It was a multi-religious and multi-ethnic city known for Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, and there is no evidence of state sanctioned conflicts between adherents of these religions.   It was only in the later part of the 20th century, following the revival of Hindu nationalism under the Barathiya Janatha Party (BJP),  the city became the center of Ayodhya debate concerning the Ram Janmabhoomi temple and the Babri Mosque that culminated in the destruction of the Temple by the  Hindu nationalist in 1992 and violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims.  Babar, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, constructed a mosque called Babri Mosque, which was allegedly built after destroying a temple devoted to Lord Rama at the same site.  According to some historians’ it was a French Jesuit Joseph Tiefffenthaler, in 1788, first suggested that the location of Babri Masjid is in proximity to the birthplace of Rama: “Emperor Aurangzeb got demolished the fortress called Ramkot, and erected on the same place a Mahometan temple with three cupolas.”

In 1990’s Lal K Advani, the leader of the BJP in his memoirs argued that “if Muslims are entitled to an Islamic atmosphere in Mecca, and if Christians are entitled to a Christian atmosphere in the Vatican, why is it wrong for the Hindus to expect a Hindu atmosphere in Ayodhya.  Even the Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul commended Hindu nationalists for ‘reclaiming India’s Hindu heritage.  Naipaul noted that destruction of Babri mosque ‘as a significant act of historical balancing and the repatriation of the Ramjanmabhoomi was a welcome sign that Hindu pride was re-asserting itself.’   Following the legal battle, Muslims agreed to give away the land, while the Hindus demanded that a law stipulating that faith in the existence of Ram Janmabhoomi cannot be decided in a court of law.  Although Indian government refrained from introducing such acts, the political parties competing for state power either directly exploit or complicit with the Ayodhya controversy, and the recent violent attacks on the Christian minorities that continue to escalate. Be that as it may.

King Pasadeni’s (also known as Maharaja Pasadeni) reign was troubled by warfare, carnage, banditry, power struggles, and a mutually beneficial power balance between Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religions. He was a glutton, greedy for treasure, and relentlessly pursued worldly pleasures.  In addition to his four wives — Soma, Sakula, Ubiri, and Vasabhakkattiya, — he had two important consorts: Queen Mallika, the daughter of a garland maker; and, Vasabha Khattiya, the daughter of Mahanama (one of prince Siddhartha’s cousins and Anuruddha’s brother), and he also kept a pretty slave girl, all of whom influenced his political practices.

Pasadeni consolidated his wealth and power by maintaining reciprocal relations with rajas of all religions, to whom he gave control of administrative units known as mahajanapada.  He demanded their complete obedience. Because his kingdom relied on trade rather than on domestic production to accumulate wealth, this openness increased threats to his power his power from local and foreign sources, and made security a real concern. Pasadena responded to this with the same pragmatism that shaped relations between the religious and political establishments.

Despite his flaws, Pasadeni was also known to be a philosophical, spiritual minded and contemplative personality, but his penchant for political power and wealth often led him to compromise these virtues. He tolerated and accommodated injustice and, despite Buddha’s abhorrence, he continued to practice Vedic blood sacrifice rituals.

Pasadeni turned to Buddha whenever there were threats to his power and despite the fact that Buddha’s counsel challenged Pasadeni’s worldly lifestyles and political practices, Buddha had enormous (though certainly not enough) influence.  Pasadena trusted only Buddha and two dependable ministers, Ugga and Arohanta, whom he always consulted about political decisions. He was suspicious of the rest of his ministers and his administration, especially after some ministers insinuated that General Bandhula was aiming at the crown, instigating Pasadena to kill the General.  Kings insecurities and uncertainties drove him to exert iron control over his ministers and personal reciprocal relations with them.  Pasadena was finally murdered by his cruel and greedy son, Vidudhabha, whom he had groomed as his heir. (Perhaps due to censorship during Pasadeni’s rule or the political motives of the writers during his time we know very little about the experiences of his subjects or their response to his conduct.)

Pasadeni fought many wars.  In one battle after he captured his nephew King Ajatasattu alive thought that he would release only the young king, but not his animals, chariots, land, displaced populations and combatants.  He wanted to keep all the captured wealth as memorabilia and prizes of victory.  Buddha, however, told his disciples that it was unwise for the king to do so.   There is, however, no evidence Buddha directly advising the king to do so.  Perhaps due to censorship historians during Pasadeni’s time do not provide us account of the experiences of the people and their wealth under captivity.   (Certainly there is no mention of NGOs helping the displaced population!)

Pasadeni’s encounter with Angulimala provides us many valuable insights about the relationship between rulers and religious establishment.  When the wife of Bhaggava Gagga, the Brahamen chaplain of King Pasadeni’s court was about to give birth to a son, and the court astrologer warned that the horoscope revealed that their son was born under a “robber constellation” and would have a predisposition to crime.  Filled with superstitious fear, the parents named the boy Ahimsaka (Harmless), anticipating that the name would counter the influence of inauspicious stars.

On the night the baby was born, King Pasadeni had a dream in which he saw an auspicious weapon that brought him many blessing glittering next to his bed.  He was frightened because he felt it signified a threat to his power and life.   Gagga consoled the king, and told him about his son’s horoscope, implying, with the tale, that the King too should do some good deeds to overcome his potential bad luck.  The perturbed king asked Gagga if his son would “rob alone or be the chief of a gang?”  Gagga replied “He will do it alone, your Majesty.” The king then asked, “What if we were to kill him now to prevent his future evil deeds?” “Perhaps,” answered Gagga. But the king decided otherwise: “As he will be a lone robber, maybe if we give him a good education he will lose his tendency to become a robber and will get a good job.”

Ahimsaka studied at the University of Taxila, were his teacher listened to the gossip of students and grew hostile to Ahimsaka, thinking, “This young man is strong in body and quite capable of doing me harm. I must get rid of him and make sure he never comes back.” The teacher cunningly told Ahimsaka, “You have successfully finished your studies, now you must bring me my fee.” “Certainly,” said Ahimsaka. “What do you demand as your fee?” The teacher replied, “You must bring me a thousand first fingers from the human hand.” “Surely you don’t require this of me?” responded the perplexed and horrified young Ahimsaka, but the teacher insisted: “You have taken from me and in return you must now do my bidding. Go now and bring a thousand fingers.” Of course, the teacher’s hoped Ahimsaka would be killed on his mission. So after an illustrious academic career, Ahimsaka became a bandit, robber and serial killer who massacred thousands of villagers and devastated villages in Kosala. According to Angulimala Sutta “Angulimala turned villages into non-villages, towns into non-towns, settled countryside into unsettled countryside.” (this is from a direct translation of the sutta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). He wore a garland made of human fingers, and was subsequently renamed Angulimala, after his atrocious decoration.

At the moment Angulimala was about to kill his mother, he confronted Buddha who, with his psychic powers, saw what was to come.  Angulimala rushed after Buddha, but could not catch up with him, even though the Buddha appeared to be walking at his normal pace. Astonished, Angulimala called out “Stop, recluse!”  Still walking, the Buddha answered, “I have stopped, Angulimala; you stop too.” When Angulimala was confused, Buddha explained: “I have stopped forever, abstaining from violence towards living beings; but you have no restraint towards things that live.” Angulimala then renounced his evil ways and joined the order of Sangha.

Angulimalas story exemplifies the Buddhist perspective on crime and punishment. Even the worst of people can renounce their faults and return to the right path if they are determined to change their character.   Angulimala took pride in saying, “Some prisoners are tamed with punishment of a stick, or a hook or a whip. I was tamed without a stick or a weapon. I was tamed by the kind words of the compassionate.”

Angulimala repented and did not attempt to escape punishment.   He lived a solitary life. The Vinya records that some people objected to ordination of Angulimala noting that, how can these recluses, the monks of the Sakyan scion, ordain a notorious criminal.”  Despite the objections by Buddha, some people refused to give alms to Angulimala, and he was stoned by villagers. The Buddha comforted Angulimala, saying: “You must endure this, Angulimala. You must silently endure this. This is a result of the deeds you have done previously.” He eventually paid with his own life for killing so many. There were karmic consequences from which even his newfound Arahantship (condition of spiritual perfection) could not release him.

King Pasenadi was on his way to hunt for Angulimala with his soldiers, but was stopped by Buddha because Angulimala had changed his ways.  Later the King, who was then the father of two sons, visited Buddha while he was seated with Angulimala and said, “Lord, it is truly wonderful that without stick or sword you are able to pacify those whom I cannot pacify with sticks or swords.”  Buddha reconciled Angulimala and King Pasadeni, who was surprised to learn that Angulimala was the son of his own spiritual advisor.

Angulimala’s story serves as an example that even the worst of people can be redeemed by the decision to change. But the recipients of Angulimala ritual today do not express any remorse over the injustices they caused, nor do they repent, or chose to live an ascetic life. Unlike Buddha, those who conduct the rituals demand no such changes.  These performers do not walk in the footsteps of Buddha, the enlightened one, but are active political players, shaping the fears and taking advantage of the insecurities of those who seek the blessing of the Angulimala Piritha. They are not free from defilements and hindrances like as greed, anger and ignorance.

The ability of Angulaimala Piritha to help restorative justice in today’s society is limited when we perform the rites as if they were unrelated to injustices committed by the individuals who seek those rites.

If we seek understanding of Buddha’s teachings, we must read all his Suttas (not simply selecting those that please us) and be consistent in applying them.  For example, it is helpful to read Angulimala Sutta with the Cakkavatti Sihananda Sutta (Lion’s Roar Sutta).  In the later Sutta Buddha said that immorality and crimes like theft, falsehood, violence, hatred, and cruelty, could well arise from poverty. In such cases clearly it is futile to attempt to eradicate crimes through the use of force, though kings and governments have always tried to suppress crime through punishment.

The Suttas also demand we be consistent in the way we exercise justice.  UNP Parliamentarian Vajira Abeywardena correctly noted, “No one could blame even if the Ministry of Buddhist Affairs is handed over to Karuna or Pilleyan in the future. If, according to Buddhism, Angulimala was pardoned, there is nothing wrong in pardoning Karuna amd Pilleyan.” This is a noble sentiment, but it is not equally applied to all who have been charged of crimes. The same parliamentarians are silent on the imprisonment of journalists like J.S. Tissainayagam.   Lack of consistency brings dishonor to our country’s dominant religion and its justice system. It isolates us from the international community.   The Angulimala Piritha will only benefit the country if its performers have the courage to persuade those politicians who seek its blessings to change their ways.