Gentle giants and cultural cruelties
The videos of elephants in the Kandy Perahera going berserk during the procession, which were widely circulated on social media platforms, have resulted in animal rights organisations and concerned citizens expressing strong opposition against the use of elephants for cultural activities, especially peraheras, and it is one of the many reminders that Sri Lanka has a long way to go in ensuring the safety of elephants used for cultural and domestic activities.
The most worrying aspect of this issue is the people’s tendency to justify the use of elephants for peraheras, among other activities, as an act that is necessary to promote and uphold the Sri Lankan culture, which is heavily shaped by Buddhism – a religion and philosophy that advocates strongly against animal cruelty. Unfortunately, in the ongoing discourse on this matter, the question as to how an act rejected by Buddhism can be used for its very furtherance, and also as part of a culture based on Buddhism, has been suppressed by the people’s blind love for the Sinhala-Buddhist culture.
The manner in which Buddhist teachings are taught and practiced also evolves, whether we like it or not, and the original meaning of a lot of things preached by the Buddha have changed. However, certain aspects of Buddhism appear to have evolved for the worse. Also, with time, some elements of Buddhism have been amalgamated with the Sinhala culture, which does not necessarily represent the values of Buddhism, resulting in the birth of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture Sri Lanka continues to uphold. This culture, in its growth, has ironically left out some of the most basic Buddhist teachings, such as metta, or the expression of loving-kindness for all beings.
Those supporting the taming and use of elephants for cultural activities, especially peraheras, in the name of religion without regard to the elephants’ wellbeing, have conveniently forgotten that this is a part of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture, and not of Buddhism. We have to be clear with that fact, as most people who support taming elephants for cultural activities try to portray it as an inseparable element of the traditions pertaining to Buddhism. The truth is far to the contrary – the Buddha never preached or supported the idea of taming animals as a part of practicing or promoting Buddhism, and inflicting pain on wild elephants, which is an integral element of the process of capturing and taming elephants for human activities, is an act rejected by the Buddha.
This is one of the major aspects of this issue, which is often overlooked by those who support the taming and use of elephants for cultural activities. The justification they come up with – that elephants are treated well while in the custody of their owners and the organisers of cultural activities – does not stand up to the violent process through which a wild elephant is captured, tamed, and trained for use by humans, and it totally disregards the fact that elephants are not, and were never meant to be, domestic animals.
The most disheartening aspect of this issue is the unwillingness among the majority of the Sinhala-Buddhist population and the relevant authorities to even acknowledge the true gravity of this issue and violence it involves. Every time animal rights activists raise this issue, the solution the authorities come up with is new regulations and policies aimed at streamlining the taming, owning, and using of elephants for cultural activists, while they do not seem to give the slightest attention to putting an end to this cruel and inhuman practice. Sinhala-Buddhists who support the use of elephants for cultural activities are among the reasons why lawmakers do not pay attention to animal rights activists, as they are voters who decide the lawmakers’ fate.
The sad reality is, amidst criticism, legal action, discussions, and awareness-raising, the capturing, taming, and using of wild elephants for cultural activities continues in the name of tradition, culture, and Buddhism, despite being in complete contradiction of the latter. Perhaps one thing Sri Lankans, especially those identifying as Buddhists, should understand is that it is through understanding true Buddhism that one can seek enlightenment, and not through the following of the mainstream culture. Once this change comes from the people, lawmakers will pay attention to implementing actual change, as they will no longer fear the backlash from their voters – and only then will our elephants no longer fear the lash of the whip.