Translator’s note: Young Bangladeshi Buddhist monk Pragyananda Bhikkhu, of Ramu Shima Bihar, wrote “Ramu Shohingshota: Fanoosh kono balloon noy”, which was published in Dainik Cox’s Bazar, November 4, 2012 in light of the controversy created over setting afloatfanooshes as part of the celebration of Prabarana Purnima, the second largest Buddhist religious festival; to be noted, this year’s date coincided with the monthly anniversary of the communal attacks of September 29, 2012, which destroyed innumerable Buddhist monasteries, temples and homes, allegedly caused by an offensive photograph discovered in the facebook account of Uttam Kumar Barua, a Bengali Buddhist youth, several hours before the attacks occurred. According to press reports, the attacks were visibly incited by local leaders and members of the ruling Awami League (AL), the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami; the attackers included those belonging to these political parties, and also, other Muslims, both local inhabitants and outsiders. News reports have highlighted the “inaction” of police officials and the local-level administration. Both ruling AL and the opposition BNP agree that these attacks were “planned” and pre-meditated.
The fanoosh controversy, as Pragyananda clearly explains, was the result of administrative interference in religious ceremonies and rituals; the Buddhists of Ramu had decided not to observe their rites of virtue this year as they were “heartbroken” and grieving over their losses.
Relief and rehabilitation (tran) actions taken by the government are satisfactory, but ones concerned with deliverance (poritran) are not, writes Pragynanda, since the issue of delivering justice to Buddhists in Ramu has by all accounts become “mired in the quicksand of [party] politics.”
After reading his article, I had requested Pragyananda to elaborate on several things including worship rites regarding fanoosh, he responded to my request in writing, sections of which have been incorporated in this translation. — Rahnuma Ahmed
He took his charioteer Chandak with him and, riding on the back of his horse Kanthaka, reached the banks of the Anoma river. He took off his princely clothes, handed them to Chandak and took the vows of renunciation. He then thought, since I’m an ascetic now why do I need these princely locks of hair? He cut them off with his sword. If I have the qualities of becoming a Buddha, if I were to throw them upwards they should not fall to the ground but stay up in the sky. He did so and amazingly, not a single hair fell to the ground. According to the Buddhist religion, the king of the gods in heaven received his locks of hair in a casket embedded with diamonds and other jewels; before placing the casket in the heaven of the Thirty-three gods, he built a chaitya(temple) named Chulamoni chaitya (the temple of hair). The gods of heaven still worship this temple.
But since Lord Buddha’s earthly devotees cannot ascend to the temple in heaven, they build paper lanterns out of deep respect and on a special day, after observing religious rituals and customs, they set afloat these lanterns in worship of Chulamoni chaitya. Religious hymns or mantras are recited by barefeet Buddhists as part of this religious offering; setting afloat fanooshes as lights or lamps to fly away to the Chulamoni chaitya is a part of these rites of worship. The fanooshes are set afloat to the rhythm of the sadhu voices of Buddhist bhikkhus (monks) who chant mantras. During Ashari Purnima, rain or dark clouds often prevent us from setting afloat fanooshes, and this is why the worship takes place during Prabarana or Aswini [the month of Aswin] Purnima.
No blame is attached to worship which stems from respect; it is something not known to have happened before. But it did on October 31, two days after Prabarana Purnima, on the grounds of Ramu High School.
On September 29, the old Buddhist monasteries of Ramu were burnt down destroying Buddhist heritage sites, traditions and ancient relics. On October 31 morning, we cleared away the ashes and the burnt charcoal together. They seemed very dear to us. Some of us held them close to our chest and wept uncontrollably. To us, these burnt ashes conveyed the deepest possible insult to religious beliefs. But after the incident, the issue seems to be getting lost in the narrow and bind alleyways of [party] politics. The tentacles are now reaching out towards our religious culture. What could be the purpose of lighting candles rowdily and setting afloat fanooshes on a sports field? No one witnessed it except for a handful of party-affiliated Buddhists. Those who were outside the field felt deeply insulted. Setting afloat fanooshes in a disrespectful manner shorn of religious rituals and ceremonies seemed to be an act of hurting the people of Ramu, who were already deeply hurt. A fanoosh is not a balloon which one can, at any time and under any circumstances, joyously set afloat. There is no timing to the flying of balloons, or any notion of when it is circumspect, when it is not. No rituals or invocations are needed. But fanooshesare different, one must follow a distinct set of rules because the act of setting afloat a fanoosh is closely entwined with the essence of what Buddhism preaches.
Prabarana Purnima is usually celebrated by Buddhists lighting candles in front of the Lord Buddha but before worshipping him devotees prepare themselves for Prabarana by bathing, wearing clothes befitting the occasion, disposing themselves to be calm and serene, observing Ashtoshila (eight precepts: avoid killing, avoid stealing, avoid sexual contact, avoid lying and deceiving others, avoid all intoxicants, avoid eating more than one meal, avoid sitting on anything luxurious and sitting with pride and, avoid singing, dancing or playing music); and, lighting candles barefooted — these are part of the preparations preceding the lighting of fanooshes. Verses dedicating thefanoosh are recited either before or after lighting candles. After the lighting of lamps, devotees pray that the enactment of worship will remove from their inner beings the darkness of being un-enlightened: caused by greed, jealousy, hatred and desire [for worldly things]; that it will help instill virtue in them.
Creating a fanoosh is also a work of art. Besides respect, it involves other things as well, enthusiasm, initiative, concentration, labour etc.
Since the people of Ramu have been heart-broken after the violent incident, their hearts were empty. Hence Ramu-bashis [Ramu’s inhabitants] did not make any preparations to set afloat fanooshes. Besides, since hundreds of Buddha’s statues had been set ablaze, since pillaging and looting had occurred, Ramu-bashis (those who are Buddhists) had decided not to undertake acts of virtue this year, such as, releasing boats on the river or setting afloat fanooshes. However, this was not a movement against the government. But we now see two separate issues, that, of anger and grief, being brought together.
The Buddhist youths of Ramu brought out a silent rally on the blessed day of Prabarana Purnima. Men and women of all Buddhist neighbourhoods were seen to take part in the rally. They had banners and placards in their hands, these contained respectful pleas and entreaties. The procession was not oppositional, nor was any protest rally held. The local police station had already been informed. Those who took part wore black badges. This is now being differently interpreted by various people, somewhat similar to making a mountain out of a molehill. The blessed Prabarana Purnima day fell on October 29, which happened to be the monthly anniversary of the violence in Ramu on September 29. They [the processionists] wore black badges to express their monthlong grief. Many now say that wearing black badges means that one is protesting against the government. Black may be used to symbolise grief, red to symbolise violence, white for peace, and green for beauty. Black flags and black badges are used on August 15, the national day of mourning, to express grief. But basically, the fact of the matter is, any person who is oppressed, repressed and affected can express his or her protest through means prescribed by law. As long as it is not expressed through means employed during the violence in Ramu when bihars, statues of Buddha, ancient manuscripts, Buddhadhatu [which non-devotees translate as ‘relics’], homes etc were destroyed.
There are two things worth considering: relief (tran) and deliverance (poritran). The following may be regarded to be relief measures: re-building the bihars which were destroyed, rehabilitating those who lost their homes and awarding them compensation for valuables that are calculable in monetary terms, awarding financial assistance to affected families, ensuring their safety. Since the incident occurred, the government has shown sufficient sincerity with respect to these efforts. For this, we are grateful to the government because it is attempting to protect the fundamental and just rights of those who have been affected.
But can the same be said about deliverance [from the violence to which we were subjected?] In other words, how proactive is the government against those who were the planners, the instigators, the executors, the attackers and the protectors? How far have the judicial proceedings against them progressed in the long month that has followed? Or, has justice gotten mired in the quicksand of [party] politics? The Buddhists who are affected can, as part of deliverance, [rightfully] protest and condemn those who are responsible for the crime. In this regard, the government can offer them assistance but if anyone attempts to assert control [over their protests and condemnation], it will be unrightful.
Setting afloat lit fanooshes, floating boats down the river and celebrating Kathin Chibardan [believers offer robes to monks, traditionally from cloth woven by themselves] are all religious rites and ceremonies. They can never be administrative programmes. The administration’s duty lies in offering assistance to ensure that these religious actvities are performed unhindered. We have not declared that we will not perform these ceremonies. We speak only of our attempts to overcome our misfortune, to regain normalcy.
We have not requested the people of the country to not set afloat fanooshes. But simultaneously [it must be noted that], the local upazilla administration has stirred controversy by setting them afloat two days before the Prabarana Purnima, in an absolutely uncircumspect manner. Such programmes are autocratic. They incite public anger. They should be abandoned.
Published in New Age, Thursday, November 22, 2012