An abuse of religious freedom

2008-11-03 00:00

Having encountered various fireworks events over the past 10 years, I feel compelled to write a candid article in view of the ongoing abuse of pets, nesting birdlife, conservancy wildlife and air quality, especially in the suburbs of Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

What is further disconcerting is the Pietermaritzburg council’s inability to sincerely and adequately address this issue de-spite the overwhelming evidence that has been submitted to them by the SPCA and despite the multitude of letters submitted to The Witness by individuals from across the religious, secular and racial spectrum.

It is with great irony that every year we are able to juxtapose two Witness articles relating to the Hindu observance of Diwali. One pertains to official religious authorities, outlining authentic Deepavali practice and confirming that the ancient traditional festival is founded on the lighting of oil lamps (Sanskrit deepa) or clay lamps (deeya) placed in rows (avali), symbolising the triumph of light over darkness with respect to spiritual enlightenment, compassion, generosity and a harmonious order of self and society.

The second article pertains to firework retailers who typically distort all sense of sacred symbolism while in pursuit of commercial profit and entertainment as observed in quantitative statements such as “people are burning millions this year”, in delighted reference to a “boom in sales”. Sadly, when confronted on the issue of abuse, injury and the death of animals, the customary retort from the majority of these retailers is that loud bangs should be tolerated since they occur only once a year.

However, the stated duration is contextually inaccurate, the noise is counter to authentic tradition and the argument is ethically flawed. Explosive bangs are heard for many nights before, during and after what is universally accepted as Deepavali; surplus stocks are blasted away by the same irresponsible patrons at Guy Fawkes, which is a culturally irrelevant practice in South Africa; and yet another cacophonous exhibition is inflicted upon audibly-sensitive animals during the drunken revelry at New Year.

If a woman or child is abused “only once a year” and suppressed with tranquillisers or locked away in a room, as is ineffectually prescribed for distressed pets, does this constitute socially acceptable behaviour for a rational and compassionate humanity? In the words of Martin Luther King: “An injustice to one is an injustice to all.”

Clearly the fireworks industry is not concerned about tradition-appropriate knowledge, altruism, compassion and harmonious order in society — as symbolised by the serene rows of lamps — but is instead satisfied to trade in the misinterpretation of the Ramayana epic and the marketing of aural chaos.

Quite frankly, the habitual use of firecrackers is a relatively recent borrowing from Chinese superstition as a perceived means by which to chase away “ghosts”. Within the context of Diwali, it is certainly not religious freedom or a divine en-lightenment that transmogrifies the primordial sanctity of the night sky into a city-wide pulpit banging out the most invasive and arrogant of sermons; in-stead, it is licentiousness and religious ignorance parading under the banner of consumerism.

Regrettably, there can be no triumph of “light over darkness” or “goodness over evil” when we are willing to purchase disjointed sonic mayhem at the cost of divine interconnectedness. How can one celebrate the Ramayana’s climactic union of Sita and Rama when Sita is, ontologically speaking, still oppressed and imprisoned in the clutches of Ravana? How can we continue to talk about the noble qualities of peace, compassion, love, harmony, union and mercy when we defy true spiritual alignment and knowingly terrorise other sentient life forms?

It must be remembered that the word religion comes from the Latin religio or religare, which means “to reunite, align, join, bind” (to divine order and truth); this is similar in meaning to the Sanskrit yoga and the Arabic islam, which carry additional connotations of “discipline” and “peace” respectively. We would do well to consider these principles the next time we appeal for so-called “religious freedom” while unashamedly indulging in dissonant and divisive behaviour under the pretence of tradition.

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