Vesak in the time of COVID-19 | Daily News


Vesak in the time of COVID-19

Pandemic notwithstanding, Sri Lanka’s cultural life being such, already thoughts are focusing on the celebration of Vesak, the most sacred day of the calendar for Buddhists around the world. The dispassionate pragmatism that is a characteristic of the Dhamma, however, enables us to conceive of and practice the celebration of this sacred moment in accordance with the realities of life around us.

There is no distraction by fond desires for the biggest pandal, or the most colourful lanterns or the most attended Dan Sal. We are too aware of the ominous ambience of our national and global context today to be carried away by our inclinations to flamboyance and the flaunt of pietism.

As at yesterday evening, with nine more infection detections, the total number of positive cases in the country reached 674. The spread of the contagion has been fast in recent weeks and has reached several parts of the island beyond the original ‘hotspots’ of the Western Province and, the Puttalam and Kandy districts.

Nevertheless, the most dangerous concentrations of the virus remain in the metropolitan urban areas because of the population densities and rapid mass transit of people both of which are the prime modes of the deadly contagion. It is the rapidity of the virus transmission that is of the greatest concern because of the threat of over-burdening the medical care system. Once the medical response capacity is overwhelmed, there will be nothing to halt the disease from striking deep into the population.

What with the experience of curfew regimes across the island as well as the news reports of the global COVID-19 devastation even among the most affluent and best-equipped countries, no one wants things to get worse. While some selfish individuals may complain about movement restrictions and lack of entertainment, the vast majority of Sri Lankans have too much of a sense of community responsibility to behave carelessly.

Vesak normally means the gathering of vast crowds to view the festive décor and lavish installations on one hand, involving the transit of literally hundreds of thousands of people both in the main metro areas as well as in provinces. On the other hand, even rural communities see gatherings of people in temples and market places.

Usually, by now, the wooden frames of pandals are already being erected with the colourful scene panels and wiring to follow in the build-up to Vesak Day due on May 7. Pavement stalls would be selling Vesak cards and lanterns. In many rural homes the raw materials for lantern-making would be readied for that fun-filled Vesak-eve family chore.

Local temples would be teeming with activity in preparations for the Sil, Bana, and Bhavana programmes and selected public areas would be readied for Bhakthi Gee and street-side dramas of the Buddha’s life.

But into our third month of the deadly pandemic, we know full well that none of this can and should happen, at least nowhere near the usual scale of things. Piety there will be, but it has to be in the smallest possible gatherings and preferably in the quiet privacy of our homes or local neighbourhoods. Certainly, the faithful community will light lanterns in their homes and local temples, but we cannot and should not traipse the roads to view them en masse.

The Ministry of Health and Indigenous Medical Services has issued a set of guidelines to be followed by the public and the Maha Sangha in the observance of Vesak this year. The instructions have been issued in order to safeguard the populace from the COVID-19 epidemic.

The Ministry’s communique urges the public to engage in ‘Aamisa’ and ‘Prathipaththi’ Pooja centred around the home as much as possible while maintaining social distancing. Temples are encouraged to use public address systems to broadcast Pirith chanting and Bana rather than attract large crowds into temple precincts or public areas.

Most news channels are broadcasting this Ministry advisory and the public are expected to familiarise themselves with this guidance.

Buddhists throughout the world will be observing the Vesak Festival in a similarly moderate manner. The United Nations’ International Vesak Festival programme has already been cancelled, with the intended host country, Thailand, announcing the cancellation in early March.

Most likely, Buddhist charities will focus on special programmes of support for pandemic affected sections of the population such as low income groups whose livelihoods have been abruptly suspended. There are many such neighbourhoods with whole families rendered destitute due to this.

Rather than the usual millions gifted for lavish Vesak décor, perhaps the Daana (alms) could be in the form of food supplies and other domestic essentials for these pandemic-affected fellow Sri Lankans.

In all, the observance of Vesak this year will be historic for its special practice of piety in a time of a pandemic.

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