Vesak tensions over how Buddha’s birthday should be celebrated—‘not a Mickey Mouse religion’


A lavishly illustrated story in the New York Times highlights growing unease that the Vesak celebration in Sri Lanka of the Buddha’s birthday is becoming “too indulgent”.

It follows a declaration by the minister of Buddha Sasana that this annual spectacle, a favourite among tourists and Sri Lankans alike, “should be a time for prayer and meditation, not fun and games”.

So he banned the pandols—large illustrations depicting the Buddha’s life in bright paint and neon lights—which caused an immediate outcry from everybody, including within government itself.


Reports the NYT: “A compromise was struck: The first day of Vesak would be reserved for prayer while the rest of the week would be more lighthearted.

“And, yes, pandols would be allowed. But only on the second day. But secular fun, excess and garish display would keep their place.”

Meanwhile, said Piyal Kasthurirathne, a religious Buddhist preparing to celebrate the holiday: “We want people to focus on Lord Buddha’s birth, the spirituality. This shouldn’t become a Mickey Mouse religion.”


Thus the struggle over the soul of Vesak “reflects tensions in the place of religion in Sri Lanka”, where “the pandols have become a symbol of a growing class of Sri Lankans … as they embrace a more consumer-driven lifestyle”.

Says the NYT: “Buddhist priests denounce the excess surrounding a festival commemorating a man who shunned his family fortune for an ascetic life, saying the waste around Vesak has become too much.

“They argue the festival as it is celebrated now often fails to promote the Buddhist traditions of simplicity and the pursuit of a life that sought spiritual satisfaction instead.”

Read more here.

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