A practical solution to a mammoth issue

Thursday, 25 August 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

PANATIPATA veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. Directly translated this means, “I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.” But as any fifth grader will tell you, in Buddhism, the first of the five precepts is not limited to taking a life. It extends to not causing bodily harm in any way, shape or form to any living being. 

In fact, the entire philosophy of Buddhism is built around compassion and loving kindness to all. In this context, the practice of using captured and ‘domesticated’ elephants as pageantry in the name of Buddhism goes against the very essence of what is undoubtedly the most compassionate religion in world history. Why then do we, as a predominantly Buddhist society, continue to indulge in this cruel practice?

The answer, as is often the case with such matters, is complicated. And, contrary to what the Colombo elite animal rights activists might have you believe, calling for an outright ban on the use of elephants in temples may not be the easiest way out.

As this newspaper has reported in the past, there is no such thing as a domesticated elephant. Roughly 90% of elephants held in captivity are caught in the wild as calves. By definition, a domesticated animal – any animal – is descended from a long line of animals of the same species born and bred in captivity. Not counting elephants born at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, very few baby elephants have been born in captivity in over three decades; and yet there has been a visible increase in the number of baby elephants in temples, hotel premises and some households over the years. Which begs the question: Where did they all come from?

One school of thought more sympathetic to the temples make a valid point in that elephants being used in the perahera (Buddhist procession) is a centuries-old practice that is more cultural than it is religious – in that it is intertwined with the Sinhala-Buddhist identity of the country. Anyone who eats meat, thereby directly contributing to the slaughter of millions of animals every year, cannot oppose this practice without being hypocritical. 

This point is well made and not without merit. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. One can consume the meat of animals bred for food and still oppose the abuse of wild animals being chained up and literally masqueraded as domesticated servants of the faith.

The dubious nature of their origins and their questionable treatment notwithstanding, the temples continue to provide food and shelter to captured elephants, and releasing animals accustomed to human care back into the wild is not an option, for obvious reasons. 

There is also no proper mechanism in place to address such an eventuality. While it goes without saying that the practice, ingrained though it may be in our culture’s DNA, is cruel and fundamentally un-Buddhist, the fact of the matter is that there is no clear-cut solution in sight. What needs to be done, therefore, is to form a dialogue with all parties concerned and work towards a solution that is both humane and acceptable to all. And needlessly antagonising the clergy, whose clout and influence over all strata of society cannot be overstated, may not be the smartest way to go about it.