Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Laughing Buddha

I'm taking the opportunity to restart my blog while on vacation in Thailand. Each time I visit this country, I'm impressed by the role that religion seems to play in daily life. Perhaps there is also a darker side that I don't know about, but my impression as a visitor is that Thai people follow a gentle religious practice focused on simplicity and personal responsibility. They are primarily Buddhists, but have great respect for Hindu gods and scriptures. Indeed the Hindu epic Ramayana has been transformed into the national epic of Thailand, the "Ramakien", written under the supervision of Kings Rama I and II in the 18th and 19th century. In this story Hindu gods and personages acquire Thai-style names, for example the names Vishnu and Brahma translate to Witsanu and Phrom, while Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna are Lak, Phrot and Satrut. Clothes, weapons and natural surroundings have likewise been converted to the Thai context, but the the essential narrative remains intact.

Interestingly the Ramakien was translated back into Sanskrit by Prof. Satya Vrat Shastri, who according to Wikipedia "has written many important poetic works in Sanskrit, the most important being his rendition from Royal Thai into Sanskrit, of the Thai version of the Ramayana, viz., Sri-rama-kirti-maha-kavyam, upon royal request, and with a Foreword by the Princess of Thailand". He is presently an honorary professor at the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies at India's leading anti-national university.

Thai religious practice can pose quite a challenge to orthodox Hindus from India. In Thailand it is possible to be devout and still believe in the right of women to work. Indeed Thai women are said to constitute 47% of the workforce, and this shows clearly on the streets. As far as food and drink go, devout Thai people eat pork, chicken, duck, beef, many varieties of seafood, as well as insects like water beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, bee larvae and ant eggs (all of which I saw being sold in the local market) plus of course a generous quota of vegetables and fruits. Alcohol is freely available and can be bought just about anywhere. So the impact of religion does not seem to go anywhere near inhibiting people's consumption of the fun things in life (well, maybe ant eggs are fun for those who eat them). I don't think orthodox Muslims care too much for Thai habits either. The southern and predominantly Muslim part of Thailand has an ongoing insurgency which has apparently transformed itself from separatist to jidhadist over the last couple of decades. This is a complicated story, as the insurgents seem particularly annoyed with moderate Muslims from Thailand and Malaysia.

In the last few days I've visited half a dozen Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. Some are extremely popular with tourists but others are quite deserted and one of them was completely empty (in Thailand this means no security guard either). Each of them has signs urging you to sit or kneel if you are near the front, partly to not block the view for others, and partly I suppose for devotion. Personally I'm a great fan of religious devotion, as long as it's my own choice and doesn't come with any annoying baggage (I'm also an atheist but I understand the Buddha is fine with that). So in each of these temples I've been sitting down and enjoying the silence, punctuated by the gentlest tinkling of tiny bells placed at strategic corners, and praying to the Buddha for enlightenment to descend on my countrymen. When He responds (as I'm sure He will), India will give up its modern, mean-spirited, bullying, violent and materialistic approach to religion. Each Indian will be allowed their own religous practice and their own choice of food. Religion will help us be more self-disciplined, organised and responsible. We will re-read our scriptures and realise their deep meaning. Religion will go back to being a gentle and personal activity, and India will turn once more into a place of peace and contentment.

One thing puzzles me, though -- while these thoughts were going through my mind, I noticed that the Buddha seemed to be laughing.

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