Too many symbols that make up society makes everything rather uncomfortable for everybody, said Jiddu Krishnamurthy, the philosopher.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith had recently spoken about Sharia law. The Archbishop had reportedly said that Shariah law cannot be allowed to intimidate others or be made part of the law of the land.
This article does not expect to dwell on Shariah law and its ramifications, but there is something about the overt usage of symbolism that Krishnamurthy talks about, that involves all aspects of life. This includes religion.
What seems to be disturbing the Cardinal is the overtly symbolic aspects of the fringe-extremist practitioners of the Islamic religion. People have invested so much in believing in this symbolism that they have forgotten what the religions are or what they represent.
Krishnamurthy does not speak about the symbols in a conventional way. He says that people derive comfort from religion, and that’s symbolic too – because it’s not based on reality. The idea of this article is not to go into the Krishnamurthy philosophy. Rather, it is to broach this tendency of an excess of symbolism in some aspects of religious observances of all religions, not just Islam. There has also been excessive symbolism attached to the apparatus of the State in the past.
Take the ‘Sri’ controversy of the 1950s. Both Sinhala and Tamil communities were complicit in exacerbating an unnecessary confrontation that was brought about by the introduction of the letter ‘Sri’ onto vehicle number plates by the then Transport and Works Minister. Tamil interest groups in the Northern Province were perturbed and organized a campaign to tar the ‘Sri’ number plates and replace the same with similar plates with the Tamil letter ‘Shri’.
This type of head-on clashes resulting from excessive symbolism is brutal, and unnecessary. But excessive representation such as this was the order of the day for a very long time in this country, and of course in other countries too. Not that we have been fully weaned away from this habit – and neither have other countries. That is clear from what the Cardinal says as well. There was overt zeal about Sharia in various parts of the country. The Cardinal has acquired the rights to speak out on this matter because of the events of Easter Sunday 2019.
On the other hand, the symbolism associated with good medical care in this country has been that it comes from the practice of Western allopathic medicine. But it seems that we have finally been able to move away from this excessive reliance, because the Government is now open to Ayurvedic treatments for Covid, for instance. There was the recent news item that a treatment for Covid has been discovered by an Ayurvedic practitioner, and that it has been proved efficacious at controlled trials.
Whether it has proven curative properties is something that is being gone into at the time of writing. But the positive development is that there is engagement with that sector of medical practitioners who once upon a time were laughed at, and relegated to the lunatic fringe.
There is also the excessive symbolism about democracy and how democratic institutions are supposed to work. The ‘reconciliation’ efforts by the previous Government for instance mostly succeeded in trampling the majority community underfoot, with the arrests and incarceration of soldiers etc. purely to satisfy the symbolic aspect of reconciliation so-called.
At all levels of society, this excessive symbolism has led to deepening polarizations and resultant conflict. It is fair for the Cardinal to think that this fanatical identification with symbolism by some elements cost the lives of so many innocents in his flock. As a result, he is articulate in coming out against the dangers of such lingering trends, and hats off to him for being vocal and forthright.
The President too has moved away from excessive symbolism, and that has caught on. No previous Sri Lankan leader tried to move away substantially from the trappings of State, for example.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa got rid of the retinue of outriders and the entourage when he arrived in Parliament. He travelled in a single unspectacular vehicle, and there were zero trappings. Contrast this to how a deputy defence minister arrived at the scene of the Easter Sunday bombings with a vehicle entourage that was easily 20 deep, and with motorcycle outriders and the garish trappings of put upon military pomp, to boot. This wasn’t for security.
As the President of the country has shown, security is not dependent on the size of the entourage. Neither the deputy minister who used to descend on various places with his mammoth entourage nor his government could get the security situation under control, never mind how large the extent of the trappings of power they used.
People these days rely less on symbols anyway, and more on substance. Folks would remember the time when political parties didn’t dream of jettisoning their election symbols. The SLFP ‘Hand’ symbol and the UNP ‘Elephant’ were not mere political signage – they were articles of faith. But those times are happily well behind us. Symbols are now changed at the drop of a hat from election to election, and party organizers know that they may win or lose, but nothing turns on the type of symbols they register with the Elections Department.
But those political representations are literally symbols, and people find it easy to get their minds around them these days. They find it harder not to be bamboozled by the more subtle symbolism peddled by the agencies of cults, civil society organizations, fundamentalist religious organizations, etc.
The experience with many of the previous governments was that they were dealing with symbols and sometimes, symbols only. The previous UNP dispensation wallowed in symbols to such an extent that the people were suffused with symbolism – but they couldn’t eat it.
To get this idea across, it may be useful to talk about the late soccer phenomenon Diego Maradona who passed on unexpectedly two weeks back. In a retrospective interview about his life as a footballing icon, and an adored star, Maradona said the people love him but his greatest wish was the yearning to spend at least a day more with his parents – an unfulfilled desire of course because they had both passed on to the Great Beyond. But then he said, he had the love of the people of Argentina. He said it was a beautiful country, and he wanted no Argentinian to go hungry. That’s because, he said, he knew what it was like to go hungry for days on end.
He didn’t talk about democracy, or freedom – the way some liberal bleeding hearts would have, if they were asked about their life’s regrets or fondest wishes. Maradona was not interested in the symbolism that many of these ideas such as freedom and democracy have come, sadly, to represent – to the advantage of politicians who peddle in such trumped up mythology. Instead, he spoke about hunger. Practical, tangible things touched him – and this truth would not have been articulated by the man if he was a politician, probably.
In their hearts of hearts, people are sick from the excess of symbolism that’s used to manipulate them. They want practical solutions from their elected leaders – but they get slogans, and a surfeit of shibboleths. That does not mean they are immune to being manipulated by symbols any longer. Sometimes, unbeknownst to them, symbols take over and play an outsize role in their lives.
That is a tragedy, but as long as society is wedded to various symbols, never mind what organizations or movements they are associated with, people are in danger of falling prey. It is in this context that it is good to see a President who is short on symbols and long on practicality. He has no use for long vehicle entourages, or being the cynosure of all eyes at wedding ceremonies or other public events.
People would remember that he issued an official communique that he regrets to have to ask people not to invite him for functions, because that would detract from his work. Already, it feels good to see the slick pap of the unctuous symbolism of the UNP years whither away, and give way to practical solutions that actually touch people’s lives.