By Helasingha Bandara
The 8 January 2019 edition of ‘The Conversation’ featured an article entitled ‘What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?’
Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s greatest – and most self-destructive – writers, had some thoughts on the subject. Poe argues that knowing something is wrong can be “the one unconquerable force” that makes us do it.
A half-century after Poe’s death, Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal and innate “death drive” in humans, which he called “Thanatos” and first introduced in his landmark 1919 essay ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’.
Many believe Thanatos refers to unconscious psychological urges toward self-destruction, manifested in the kinds of inexplicable behaviour shown by Poe.
The purpose of this article is to relate the concept of ‘Thanatos’ or self-destruction to two most prestigious institutions in Sri Lanka: The Judiciary and the third Gem, the Maha Sanga. Chronicling the self-destructive behaviour of any of those institutions is beyond the scope of this article. This would only highlight a couple of instances to stress the point.
In 1997, when Ravaya newspaper challenged a certain magistrate for gross misconduct, a group of Buddhist monks belonging to the Bikkhu Force of the North Western Province burnt an effigy of the then Editor of Ravaya, Victor Ivan, in protest.
Taking the legitimacy of the protest out of context, the burning of an effigy of a human being falls onto a symbolic act of murder. Abstaining from taking life of any sort is the first of the major five precepts on which the entire Buddha Dharma is based.
Dharma says people can sin through Sitha (mind), Kaya (body) and Wachanaya (word). The Buddha preached that people can sin not only bodily but in mind and word too. In this particular instance the group of monks meditated murder in ‘mind’, manifested the intention to murder in a symbolic ‘bodily’ act of burning an effigy and expressed the ferocity of opposition in ‘words’. Inadvertently they set an unruly example for their followers who they were supposed to educate on the teachings of the Buddha to create a righteous society.
More than 20 years ago communication revolution had not reached Sri Lanka. Thus this unwarranted act of the monks escaped analytical scrutiny. However, unaware of the monks involved and the whole priest population, similar incidents have escalated to the point of no return. The gradual erosion of respect for the monks, among the people, went unnoticed.
It was very unusual to hear a Buddhist monk called by any other name than Swamini (your lordship) 20 years ago even by anyone belonging to another faith. It is hard to mention the names by which they are called today in a public forum. Is that Thanatos – the self-destruction?
In the past when a monk was in disarray he was not punished but corrected by other means. If it applied to a group of monks it was corrected by a Dhamma Sanjayana. If the venerated, disciplined, educated and wise leaders of the monk population do not grasp this as a destructive trend, there won’t be any respect left for the monks after the next 20 years, Thanatos!
This writer noticed that one of Kalyananda Thiranagama’s letters addressed the Chief Justice ‘His Lordship, The Chief Justice’. People used to treat the Judiciary with such reverence.
Sugandika Fernando, the rebel lawyer, in an interview said that the lawyers and the judges are now called “kakko” (crows). Crows are known to eat any dirt indiscriminately. Even two decades ago the possibility of bribing a judge was unheard of and unthinkable. Today we hear many stories about the actions of the people involved in the Judiciary much worse than taking a bribe. Has the Judiciary fallen to that level because of Thanatos?
‘His Lordship’ is the archaic, anachronistic and pompous jargon that the British have left with us. Even after 73 years of independence we still show servitude by respecting such language while the British Judiciary itself has dropped ‘Your Lordship’ and replaced it with ‘Your Honour’. The Americans have dropped it altogether and a judge is addressed by both the accused and the plaintiff as just ‘judge’!
Since independence, governance of Sri Lanka was held by the legal professionals and they desired to create and establish an elite class for themselves. As a result, the titles Mudliyar instead of an interpreter or a translator and Aarachchi were retained while incorrectly translating ‘Your Lordship’ into Swamini. Swamini in Singhala is used to address a priest or the king in the kingdom in the context that the king owned everything including the subjects and so becomes the provider. Swamini for a judge is inappropriate in every sense. ‘Winischaya kara thumani’ is respectful enough to address a judge by any standard.
The educated, rational and foresighted leaders of the Judiciary should contemplate reforms to safeguard the respect of the Judiciary before people start to call lawyers and judges ‘kakko’ in public. Stop ‘Thanatos’!