Pining for Hitler!


Ven. Endaruwe Upali, Deputy Chief Priest of the Asgiriya Chapter in the Buddhist ecclesiastical order, is in the news. But it is not for his knowledge of the Dhamma or for the erudite delivery of a sermon worthy of Buddhism’s timeless appeal or for his strict adherence to vinaya, the set of disciplinary rules, which is expected to embellish the moral and ethical character of the Buddhist clergy. In fact, he is in the news for all the wrong reasons.

At an offering of alms to mark the 69th birthday of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa a few days ago at his residence in Mirihana and in the presence of many luminaries supportive of Rajapaksa’s presidential ambitions, the monk had observed in a sermon, "as the clergy, we feel the country needs a religious leader … Some people have described you as a Hitler. Be a Hitler. Go with the military and take the leadership of this country." The news has been reported slightly differently in different news portals. Even so, the basic thrust of the Reverend’s argument is what I have quoted above. Today, I will not deal with Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign or his suitability for the country’s top job. My interest is merely with the Hitlerite analogy or metaphor the monk had drawn in blessing Rajapaksa and his politics. And this has been done by no ordinary man off the street. He is one of the most high-ranking members of the country’s Buddhist clergy. And the primary example he used in his sermon is not merely any man lost to the mists of history, but the architect of the Jewish holocaust, which killed six million Jews as part of his depraved ‘final solution.’

As I grew up, my parents and teachers in school did not ever bring up the character of Hitler as something that we should emulate, but as the ultimate example of pure evil no one should contemplate even in one’s worst nightmare. In the 1980s, in the midst of graduate studies, I remember buying Hitler’s Mein Kampf for US$ 1.00 and bringing it to Colombo in the mid 1980s on a rare vacation. Both my parents reprimanded me for reading such ‘dangerous’ stuff, and admonished me not to leave the book lying around. That was because a somewhat politically unhinged neighbour had been accosting me regularly those days to try and borrow the book to translate it into Sinhala. He thought Hitler’s ‘final solution’ had much to contribute to Sri Lankan politics with regard to what he called the ‘Tamil problem.’

My parents were very clearly wary of even Hiltler’s book. And they were Buddhist too, and it is that Buddhism I have also inherited along with my sister and many others in my generation. In that Buddhism, Hitler’s only place even as a mere cursory example of evil would be right next to Deva Datta, the Buddhist version of Judas. But none of these anxieties seem to have mattered to Ven. Upali as he delivered his sermon and so freely used the example of Hitler to make one of his most important arguments. Though there is much debate on this matter in the social media and mainstream media, too, there is pronounced silence on the part of most luminaries including former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Minster GL Peiris and many others who attended the function. Perhaps, Hitler and what he represents are good for their politics, as Ven Upali has advised. But today, my focus is not on their politics, but on Ven. Upali’s statement itself and its location within a Buddhist sensibility. How is it possible for a man of the Dhamma to prop up the example of Adolf Hilter in a public utterance, as the ideal an aspiring local presidential hopeful should emulate?

At one level, Ven. Upali is a mere follower of a dangerous, simplistic and reductionist streak of global politics that admires strong men. It is this trend which marked the electoral successes of India’s Narendra Modi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and US Donald Trump. Large swaths of people in these countries and elsewhere have been willing to overlook blatant failures (to put it mildly) of such leaders for the alleged purpose of ‘getting things done.’ In this scheme of thinking, dictatorship is preferred to democracy irrespective of its long-term social and political consequences. The issue for me is not about ordinary people’s preference of politics even if these preferences might be dubious. But when a highly placed priest makes public statements of political choice and direction, they acquire special attention, meaning and power. They have the ability to sway people, and that too in a dangerous direction.

However, given the fallout of his words, a number of public defenses have already been mounted, which themselves shed considerable light on the nature of this country’s public politics than anything else. Ven. Upali himself has issued a formal statement in which he has defended himself on two grounds:

1) He suggested that one or two words like ‘Hitler’ and ‘military’ out of a sermon of 30 minutes couldn’t be taken out of context and used to twist what he said. But as I have said earlier, words such as Hitler in particular cannot have any positive meaning within the discourse of world history of the modern period in which it is located.

2) He further noted that "what he meant was that direct policies are necessary to govern a country and that he did not mean a brutal regime by killing people like that of Hitler’s" But if Hitler was his reference and exemplar of ‘direct policies,’ such policies only led to very specific outcomes all of which are well-documented: the Third Reich’s attempted hegemony of the world order and the beginning of World War 2 under Hitler; dismantling of democratic practices and institutions in Germany and its latter subjugation by the allied powers; and the attempted extermination of Jews with terrible consequences.

A similar defense of these words have been issued by Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa as well, and the thrust of his argument is to blame Minister Mangala Smaraweera for his criticism of Rev Upali’s sermon, and blindly argues (or rather, shouts) that the Reverend’s statement has been misconstrued. Rev. Iththakande Saddhatissa, in a similar defense has argued what Rev Upali meant was not for Rajapaksa to kill like Hitler, but build the country from the chaos it is presently in. But if Hitler is the example of nation-building, then, we are truly in trouble as that was a drive to eliminate all he considered inferior races and political obstacles in his relentless march towards unlimited power for himself and the Third Reich. Ven Medagoda Abhayatissa outlined a more insidious argument that goes much beyond the defense of Rev Upali’s words. According to him, when someone like a Deputy Chief Priest, issues a statement, it is simply wrong for people to criticize him looking at minor ‘linguistic’ issues. Hitler, it seems is one of those minor linguistic issues. He further notes, what Rev Upali meant through the metaphor of Hitler was for Mr Rajapaksa in his future hoped-for presidential role to build a law-abiding, disciplined society.

Even a cursory glance at world history would clearly indicate the kind of havoc Hitler’s sense of ‘discipline’ ushered in, not only in Germany, but also in the entire world. Gas chambers in Auschwitz and elsewhere in Europe, which killed millions of Jews are the direct results of this ‘discipline.’ There is also a strong undercurrent in his words, which suggests that when statements like this are made by eminent monks, they should not be criticized by lesser mortals. This reprimand against questioning Rev Upali’s statement goes against the strong ethical principles entertaining doubt, dissent and the right to question that are enshrined in Buddha’s own words in the Kalama Sutra.

In it, the Buddha noted at one point, "when you know for yourselves that, ‘these qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them." But clearly, it appears that these words of wisdom are lost on these recent public peronalities who claim to speak on behalf of Buddhism. But that is surely not my Buddhism!

What these lay and priestly apologists miss is a very simple but crucial matter. That is, even in commonsensical conversations, and certainly in sermons of monks and public statements issued by ‘responsible’ people, when a word such as Hitler is used pertaining to any context, it cannot be devoid of all of its obvious and necessary meanings. It is a matter of history. It is a matter of established systematically culled knowledge. When such references are made, they cannot be defended on the basis of latter over-interpretations based on convenience or tenuous hindsight. Of crucial importance is also the fact that in this country, people tend to take the advice and words of the clergy very seriously, and if the examples they offer are problematic, the message itself becomes a problem, as is the case in this matter. What becomes obvious in this situation is a fundamental and dangerous ‘lack’ that is so evident among our pubic personalities -- both priestly and lay. That is, a woeful lack of commonsense, a nuanced political sensibility and an abysmal knowledge of the world and its histories and complexities. With this fundamental intellectual lapse, it is simply too dangerous to take snippets from that history out of context and to superficially make local political arguments of dubious value. It is simply irresponsible. With defenders and friends like these, one really does not need external enemies to disrupt institutional Buddhism as is often claimed. That dismantling will come from within, with this kind of thinking, which goes against the core principles of Buddhist teachings.

More than lay politicians with a questionable track record such as Weerawansa, my concern is with priests who enter mainstream political discourse seemingly oblivious of the destructive path they might be in the process of establishing which negatively impact society in general, and their own religions order in particular. It is also extremely disheartening to see their inability to accept a mistake for what it is, when pointed out. For them, with a great degree of sadness and anxiety, I can do no better than to offer the Buddha’s powerful words of wisdom and general reprimand to errant monks, which was expected to be a deterrent against violations of vinaya:

"It is not fit, foolish man, it is not becoming, it is not proper, it is unworthy of a recluse, it is not lawful, it ought not to be done. How could you, foolish man, having gone forth under this Dhamma and Discipline which are well-taught, [commit such and such offense]?... It is not, foolish man, for the benefit of un-believers, nor for the increase in the number of believers, but, foolish man, it is to the detriment of both unbelievers and believers, and it causes wavering in some" (The Book of the Discipline, Part I, I.B. Horner; London: Pali Text Society, 1982, pp. 36-37).

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